Let’s make one thing clear, you can never have enough pitching. This is a philosophy that has been around baseball probably since teams tried to compete with the 1920s New York Yankees. It’s nothing new and clearly it has relevance.
Preventing runs is one half of the equation that determines whether a team wins a game or does not and sure pitchers have perhaps a little more than 50 percent control over the run prevention aspect of the game, there is little doubt that pitching — good pitching for that matter — is vital to any team’s annual success.
So when I say that the Mariners should not entertain an extension for current No. 2 starter Jason Vargas, I don’t say it lightly. Since Vargas was named the American League pitcher of the month for his month of July (5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 44 innings in six starts) and likewise survived the July 31st trade deadline without changing his address, many people around Seattle are curious about Vargas’ long term future.
They’re concerned for good reason. Vargas is an important pitcher the Mariners in 2012 as the team transitions from perennial cellar dweller to contender. As the Mariners rotation is currently constituted, Vargas ranks as the team’s most accomplished starter behind Felix Hernandez. He sports a 12-8 record after Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles with a 3.69 ERA and is on pace to top 200 innings for the second consecutive season.
What’s the problem then? It all comes down to Vargas’ value. This year he makes $4.8 million and while he’s having a solid season, his career numbers (40-46 record with a 4.36 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 120 starts) suggest a regression to the mean. That’s a problem when you consider the team is currently counting on him to be a No. 2 starter and that he’s entering his last year of arbitration.
If the Mariners are to tender him a contract in the offseason, Vargas could conceivably see his annual salary jump to $8 million or more. For a team that seems to be cost conscious and trying to give playing time to its young talent (Vargas is 29), it would seem prudent to allocate those resources to areas where the team is lacking because pitching the team has.
Behind Hernandez, the team has Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood, Hishashi Iwakuma, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi in addition to Vargas, as pitchers that have started a game this season. It also has last year’s first round pick Danny Hultzen at the triple A level and other young pitching talent on the way up. It also has the ability to spend money on elite pitching talent if it so desires. Zack Greinke is one such candidate who will most likely hit the free agent market this offseason after being traded to the Angels at the deadline. The Mariners are a franchise that offers a ton to free agent pitchers, namely one of the best pitcher’s parks in the game, the best defense in the majors and a market away from the lime light.
Vargas is OK but he’s not a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter. His career numbers bare that out. The Mariners face a decision because Vargas is entering his last year of team control and will likely see his salary double. It’s no small change to a team like the Mariners and when you have other options that can provide you the same (why not re-sign Iwakuma instead for maybe half Vargas’ expected cost?) in terms of production and even veteran leadership, it makes sense to explore those.
The Mariners should explore trade options with Vargas once the season is completed while his value remains high. Any deal at that point would be better than getting nothing in return. With that completed — or at the same time — work to re-sign Iwakuma to another one year deal if he continues to pitch well through the end of the year. From there, I would explore options with signing Greinke and if that doesn’t pan out, go into the season with a rotation fronted by Hernandez, Iwakuma and Beavan and candidates like Hultzen, Noesi, Ramirez, James Paxton and Andrew Carraway.