As the 2017 season winds down, the Kansas City Royals appear to have missed their opportunity to make one last postseason run with their core group intact. For fans, it’s disappointing on multiple levels. It’s disappointing because at times this season, the Royals looked like a team that could compete for another championship. It’s also disappointing because the fans are faced with the fact that there are five beloved free agents that may be playing their last game in a Royals uniform on October 1.
Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas are all unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. All five were on the teams that appeared in back-to-back World Series. All five have been embraced by Kansas City and Royals fans. Last Word On Baseball has already chronicled what Moustakas has meant to the organization. We will document the others as this season approaches its conclusion. Today we will look at Jason Vargas.
Jason Vargas’ Free Agency Fate up in the Air
Vargas doesn’t look much like a ballplayer. He doesn’t have an intimidating presence. While he’s calm and confident, he looks more like he should be wearing a lab coat with a stethoscope draped around his neck. Regardless of his appearance, he is most definitely a ballplayer and all that it implies. On the mound, he is intense and competitive. He’s a bulldog with the ball in his hand and has a career batting average of .262 in 70 plate appearances. He was a DH in college at LSU and Long Beach State on days that he didn’t pitch. He’s just a ballplayer.
His Royal Years
Vargas signed with the Royals before the 2014 season to a four-year contract. He was a confident veteran. He added stability to the rotation. At that time, The Royals had Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland in the bullpen to cover the final three innings so starters were not expected to go deep into games. Six solid innings was all that was asked of starters at that time; just keep them in the game.
Vargas was the perfect fit for Kauffman Stadium as a contact pitcher who didn’t have great velocity. The Royals were outstanding defensively so Vargas could focus on placing the ball in spots that were hard to make solid contact. It’s what he did best. In 30 starts for the Royals in 2014, he went 11-10 with a respectable ERA of 3.71; the best in his career. He also ate up 187 innings. With the three-headed monster in the bullpen, he did what was asked of him as the fourth man in the rotation. He made three starts in the postseason in 2014 going 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA.
2015 started well for Vargas as he went 5-2 in nine starts. However, his elbow wasn’t well and his 2015 season ended early due to a torn UCL in his left arm in July. He had Tommy John Surgery and began his recovery. While he couldn’t participate, he was in the dugout as often as he could be for the remainder of the season and for the entire postseason.
2016 was completely about recovery. He started six minor league games before making the Royals 40-man roster in September. He made just three appearances pitching 12 innings with a 2.25 ERA. It appeared that he would be ready to start the 2017 season.
No one could predict the dominance that we saw from Vargas for the first half of 2017. Through 16 starts, he had only given up more than three runs one time and had an ERA very close to 2.00 for most of that stretch. His fastball was only hitting the mid-80’s, but his accuracy was uncanny. Vargas was finding ways to put the ball in spots where the hitter couldn’t hit it hard. He was doing it over and over again. He made his first All-Star team and had 14 wins by the break.
After the break he has started to look tired. That is not unusual for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John Surgery. His ERA climbed to over 4.00. He was having a hard time keeping the ball in the ballpark. No one believed that he would maintain the early season pace for the entire season, but the drop off was more than anyone expected. His last three starts have been better as he got wins in each of them, but it may be too late to help the Royals make the postseason.
Of the five free agents mentioned earlier, Vargas may be the most affordable. He’s probably more likely to remain a Royal than the other four. Kauffman Stadium fits his game well. He’ll provide good value for what the Royals will have to pay him. The city loves him. The fans appreciate the contributions that he made to the championship. His fate is up in the air, but like Jeremy Guthrie and other contributors to the championship, he will forever hold a special place in the hearts of fans.