- A.J. Burnett Expected To Miss Four Weeks With Flexor Strain
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Jason Vargas Rumors
6:27pm: Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star reports (via Twitter) that the Royals have insurance on Vargas’ contract. If he misses all of the 2016 season, roughly $6MM of the $8.5MM he’s owed is covered by the policy.
Needless to say, that diagnosis does not bode well for Vargas’s status this year or next. The surgery almost always requires more than a full year before a pitcher can return to action. That rough timeline would suggest that Vargas will not be available until late in 2016 at the earliest.
Vargas is playing on a four-year, $32MM deal that he signed as a free agent before the 2014 campaign. He is owed $8.5MM next year and $8MM for 2017.
The loss of Vargas represents a significant hit to Kansas City’s rotation depth. The club was already sporting the league’s 7th-highest composite starter ERA, and ERA estimators were even less optimistic of the quality of the current staff. Righty Yordano Ventura will take the open roster spot, but he had just been demoted after falling shy of expectations in the season’s first half.
In spite of the rotation difficulties, of course, the Royals entered today’s action with the American League’s best record. Adding a starter of some kind seemed an inevitability, with the question being whether GM Dayton Moore would aim for big impact or sturdy innings. It isn’t clear that the Vargas injury changes the equation in that regard, though it certainly adds impetus to the team’s need to add an arm (or two).
There were two potentially significant injuries tonight for teams already expected to be active in the market for starting pitching at the trade deadline. Here’s the latest at the end of a busy day of news and rumors:
- Dodgers lefty Brett Anderson left his start with what the team described as irritation in his left Achilles tendon area, as Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times reports in a series of tweets (1, 2, 3, 4). Anderson said he hopes it’s not a significant injury, while manager Don Mattingly indicated it was too soon to tell whether a DL stint would be required. MRI testing tomorrow should offer additional clarity. Needless to say, any absence from Anderson would exacerbate an already difficult situation in the back of the Los Angeles rotation. GM Farhan Zaidi acknowledged as much, as Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles tweets. “I don’t know that we could ratchet up our search for starting pitching any more,” said Zaidi, “but this emphasizes the need to add.”
- Meanwhile, fresh off a rehab stint, Royals starter Jason Vargas was forced out after experiencing left medial elbow pain, Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star reports on Twitter. He, too, will need an MRI to assess his condition. Kansas City had just demoted Opening Day starter Yordano Ventura, who could be recalled if Vargas hits the DL. But the team was already said to be looking to add to its stockpile of starters, so any uncertainty regarding Vargas could increase the team’s needs over the next ten days.
- In what may be a thin market for bats, the Rangers have received plenty of calls on first baseman Mitch Moreland, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports. Moreland has enjoyed a breakout campaign, but Texas is fading and is over-loaded with left-handed bats going forward. With another year of control remaining (after playing this year at only $2.95MM), Moreland could be a solid first base/DH addition for a team that could reap more value from him than can the Rangers. But Texas “would likely want at least a young starting pitcher” in return, says Rosenthal, and it appears more likely at this point that he’ll be retained.
2:50pm: Vargas tells reporters that further tests revealed that there’s no damage to his UCL (Twitter link via McCullough). He’s hopeful that he can begin to play catch next week and only miss “a few” starts, though the team has yet to announce any form of timetable.
2:32pm: The Royals will place left-hander Jason Vargas on the disabled list with a strained flexor muscle in his left elbow, reports Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star. While there’s no further news on Vargas’ condition yet, McCullough notes that Vargas could be out for months. The team also must be concerned with the possibility of Tommy John surgery, as flexor injuries can often be a precursor to the operation. Vargas’ roster spot will be filled by Yohan Pino for the time being.
Vargas, 32, is in the second season of a four-year, $32MM pact with Kansas City signed in the 2013-14 offseason. While some questioned the deal at the time it was signed, Vargas made good on the first year of the contract, firing 187 innings of 3.71 ERA ball with 6.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and a 38.3 percent ground-ball rate. Fangraphs valued his contributions at 2.2 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference pegged him at 2.4. Vargas also pitched well in the postseason, winning a pair of games in the ALDS and ALCS by allowing three total runs in a combined 11 1/3 innings. He scuffled a bit in the World Series, yielding three runs in a short, four-inning outing that resulted in a loss.
The Royals have some rotation depth in the event of such an injury, as Pino and Chris Young were both signed to small Major League deals this offseason. Top prospect Brandon Finnegan looms as an option in the Minors as well. Young is expected to step into Vargas’ rotation slot for now, according to McCullough.
Losing Vargas for a significant amount of time would increase the need for strong performances from Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and Edinson Volquez atop the rotation, however, as right-hander Jeremy Guthrie has struggled badly in the final guaranteed year of his contract. Vargas, too, has struggled in 2015, although this news may shed some light on the reason for his difficulties. Through 25 2/3 innings this year, he’s worked to a 5.26 ERA with a 14-to-10 K/BB ratio.
The Rays operate on one of the tightest budgets in baseball, but relief could be within sight, writes Cork Gaines of RaysIndex.com. The team’s television contract is set to expire following the 2016 season. While Tampa Bay has a reputation for poor fan investment, they actually draw a strong viewership. Based on recent television deals, Gaines finds a roughly linear relationship between viewership and annual payment. That would put the Rays in line to earn about $80MM to $100MM per season, a large increase over their current $20MM payment. One cautionary outlier is the Twins, who earn just $29MM per season despite a viewer base that would suggest a $80MM yearly return. Gaines noted that ownership stakes were not factored into the analysis.
- Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon might not be the only Rays stakeholders ready to abandon Tampa Bay, reports Bill Madden of the New York Daily News. Despite the impending television deal, owner Stuart Sternberg has discussed a possible relocation to Montreal with potential Wall Street investors. Montreal drew over two million fans four times during the Expos tenure. Tampa Bay has not reached that milestone since their inaugural season. To me, it seems like Sternberg is attempting to improve his leverage in stalemated talks with St. Petersburg, but there is some question about the Tampa area’s ability to support a major league franchise.
- As we prepare for Game 4 of the World Series, Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com notes starter Jason Vargas almost didn’t end up with the Royals. Vargas was expected to return to the Angels who coveted a stable veteran presence in their rotation. However, Kansas City was willing to guarantee a fourth year, which was a sticking point for the Angels. Vargas is quoted as having made the decision for his family, although I’m sure he’s quite pleased with how the first year of his contract turned out. Good luck to him in tonight’s contest.
The Cubs have given senior vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod a two-year extension, reports Scott Miller of MLB Network Radio and FOX Sports San Diego (Twitter link). While president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer may have more name recognition, McLeod was also a key member of the Red Sox front office alongside Epstein and Hoyer last decade. He followed Hoyer to the Padres when Hoyer served as San Diego’s GM and moved to Chicago alongside Hoyer and Epstein when Chicago restructured its front office.
Here’s more from baseball’s Central divisions…
- Top Cubs prospect Arismendy Alcantara is getting a two-day promotion while Darwin Barney is on paternity leave, tweets Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago. While he stresses that it’s just for two days, Cubs fans will be getting their first look at a Top 100 prospect who GM Jed Hoyer has said could get a lengthier look this season.
- Royals lefty Jason Vargas will be out three to four weeks after being rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy today, reports Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star. That’s not the only bad news on the injury front in K.C., either, as McCullough adds that Alex Gordon will undergo an MRI on his wrist. “I can’t swing,” Gordon told reporters. Manager Ned Yost thinks Gordon can avoid the DL, McCullough tweets, but he doesn’t expect him to play in a big series against the division-leading Tigers.
- ESPN’s Jim Bowden looks at what it would take for contending teams to acquire Josh Willingham from the Twins (ESPN Insider required). Bowden feels that the slugger’s modest salary (he’s earning $7MM in 2014) and relatively low prospect cost make him a good fit for the Mariners, Royals and Reds.
The free-agent market for starting pitching has been slow to develop this offseason, but now that Masahiro Tanaka has chosen a team, signings are trickling in. Two recent NL West contracts demonstrate how uncertain that market can be. The Diamondbacks agreed to terms with Bronson Arroyo on a two-year, $23.5MM deal that includes an option for 2016, and the Dodgers signed Paul Maholm for one year and $1.5MM guaranteed, with the chance to make up to $5MM more in incentives.
There are clear differences between the two pitchers — Arroyo is a righty and Maholm is a lefty, and Arroyo has been the more durable of the two. That's a trend that might not persist, given that Arroyo is five years older than Maholm. But Maholm did miss a start in September due to elbow soreness (although an MRI revealed no structural trouble) and he pitched 49 fewer innings than Arroyo last year.
Arroyo and Maholm aren't that different, however. They're both low-upside, pitch-to-contact types who give their teams decent chances of winning as mid-rotation or back-of-the-rotation starters. And statistically, they're reasonably similar.
One could actually make the case that, over the past three seasons, Maholm has been better than Arroyo. As Fangraphs' David Cameron noted yesterday (via Twitter), Maholm appears to be quite a bargain in comparison. (I made a similar observation at my own blog.)
Others have noted the huge disparity between Maholm's contract and that of Jason Vargas, who received four years and $32MM from the Royals earlier this winter. Like Maholm, Vargas is a 31-year-old, pitch-to-contact lefty. Vargas has produced 4.5 WAR over the last three seasons, compared to 4.6 for Maholm.
The common thread here may be the perception that Arroyo and Vargas are more likely to give their new teams 200 innings. (Vargas only pitched 150 last season after missing time due to a blood clot, but he threw at least 201 in both 2011 and 2012.) If that's the case, however, the market seems to be overreacting. In theory, a team could easily get two Maholm-type fragile pitchers and hope for them to combine for 250 or so decent innings, rather than paying Arroyo or Vargas many times more. A team would have to clear an extra spot on its roster that way, but that seems like a small matter compared to the savings in dollars.
In fact, in a way, this seems to be what the Dodgers are doing — they'll have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren for the first four spots, and then Maholm, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley will soak up the remaining innings. (Beckett and Billingsley are both returning from injury.) If Arroyo posts 200 innings, that's surely useful, but given that his innings aren't the highest quality, a team should be able to compensate for reduced back-of-the-rotation certainty with greater depth.
Among Arroyo, Vargas and Maholm, Maholm is probably the outlier. MLBTR's Tim Dierkes' projection for Arroyo's contract was almost exactly on the money, while Maholm's contract, at least the guaranteed portion, falls well short of Dierkes' projected one year and $7MM. Perhaps teams are simply extremely concerned about Maholm's elbow. (In fact, that seems at least somewhat likely, given Maholm's apparent openness to pitching in relief. One would think a pitcher of his caliber would be able to find a sure starting job somewhere.)
If not, though, Maholm's deal doesn't bode well for a pitcher like lefty free agent Chris Capuano. Capuano's value has been similar to Vargas or Maholm the past three seasons (with 4.8 total fWAR), but he only pitched 105 2/3 innings last year due to a series of injuries, and he has two Tommy John surgeries in his past. Given Capuano's tendency to pitch reasonably strong innings when healthy, though, he could give his next team great value. Maholm's contract could be a bargain for the Dodgers, and the team that picks up Capuano could be in line for a bargain as well.
FRIDAY: ESPN's Jerry Crasnick reports (via Twitter) that Vargas will receive $7MM in 2014, $8.5MM in 2015-16 and $8MM in 2017.
THURSDAY: Looking to fill a void in the rotation, the Royals announced that they have signed left-hander Jason Vargas to a four-year contract that will reportedly pay the southpaw $32MM. Vargas is represented by Nez Balelo of CAA Sports.
Vargas, 31 in February, pitched to a 4.02 ERA with 6.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and 40.2 percent ground-ball rate in 150 innings. A blood clot shelved Vargas for nearly six weeks, but he made all of his starts upon returning. Vargas proved his health by finishing strong and hurling a shutout against the A's on Sept. 24. Aside from the blood clot, Vargas has been a highly durable arm, averaging 190 innings per season dating back to 2010. In that time, Vargas has a 3.97 ERA with 5.9 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 761 innings. Though he averaged just 87.7 mph on his fastball in 2013, he posted a swinging-strike rate of 8.6 percent that wasn't too far off from the league average of 9.3 percent.
Vargas has always been a fly-ball pitcher, so moving to an environment like Kansas City should be a natural transition. Kauffman Stadium was one of the least homer-friendly stadiums in the league in 2013, per ESPN's Park Factors, which should help to maximize Vargas' effectiveness. While he was fairly stingy with homers in 2011 and 2013, he did average 1.4 homers per nine innings in 2012, so he has a propensity to get homer-happy at times.
The Angels originally acquired Vargas last offseason in a one-for-one swap that sent Kendrys Morales to the Mariners. Anaheim declined to make Vargas a qualifying offer at season's end, meaning Royals GM Dayton Moore will not have to sacrifice a draft pick in order to make this signing. In my free agent profile for Vargas, I predicted that he would sign for three years and $28.5MM, so while the total years is a bit surprising, the overall commitment is in line with the expectations at the time of that post.
The Royals had a clear need in the rotation with Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen both hitting free agency, and Wade Davis flopping in his initial attempt to reprise his role as a starting pitcher. Vargas will join ace James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and presumably youngsters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura in Kansas City's 2014 rotation.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
In Jason Vargas, the Royals added an innings-eating, low-upside arm for $8MM per season yesterday. While news of Vargas' four-year deal initially elicited some shock, the contract actually looks reasonable in terms of Vargas' average annual value.
The first thing to do is accept this fact: free agency is an environment in which few players are able to be secured at a bargain rate. Unless a player is coming off an injury or a terrible season, the odds are against him signing for anything other than a premium in terms of years, dollars or both. In Vargas' case, the Royals paid a premium in years in order to avoid doing so in terms of dollars.
Vargas is a slightly below-league-average starter overall in terms of ERA+ (96 over the past four seasons) that has shown flashes of being a slightly above-average starter (104 ERA+ in 2010). He's likely to deliver a season of roughly league-average work in any given year — sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.
What Vargas provides is innings, and save for a freak blood clot that isn't likely to cause any recurring issues, he's been a durable source of those roughly league-average innings since 2010. Vargas averaged 204 innings from 2010-12 and has averaged 194 frames per season from 2010-13, even when accounting for the lost time due to this year's fluke DL stint. Durability pays on the free agent market, and Vargas hasn't had arm-related troubles since 2007 when he had minor surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. Consistently delivering innings and consistently delivering similar performances (his ERA has sat between 3.78 and 4.25 over the past four seasons) gives teams peace of mind. The Royals paid for that peace of mind and consistency.
Some detractors will point to Vargas' somewhat incriminating xFIP over that same stretch and say that he has the skill set of a 4.50-ish ERA pitcher, but xFIP assumes a league-average homer-to-flyball ratio. Flyball pitchers like Vargas tend to see a lower percentage of their flyballs leave the yard, so it's reasonable to assume that Vargas can continue to post HR/FB marks around nine percent and keep his ERA in the low 4.00 range.
Aiding Vargas' case is that he and his flyball tendencies will be calling the spacious Kauffman Stadium home — a park that suppressed home runs better than all but eight stadiums in 2013 (including Angel Stadium and Safeco Field). He'll also have a solid outfield defense on his side, as Alex Gordon will man left field with some combination of Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, David Lough and Justin Maxwell patrolling the other two spots (barring another outfield addition). Cain, Lough and Dyson each carry a sterling defensive reputation, per UZR and The Fielding Bible's Defensive Runs Saved metric.
When it comes down to it, the AAV is the key to this contract for the Royals. Paying a mid-rotation or back-end starter $8MM annually seems alarming to some, but consider the following comparison of two pichers, if you will:
|Games Started||Innings Pitched||K/9||BB/9||GB%||ERA||FIP||xFIP||SIERA|
The two aren't that far apart, so we can reasonably expect that they'd sign similar contracts. While one might think that's the case, Pitcher A is Mark Buehrle from 2008-11, who signed a four-year, $58MM contract following that four-year stretch. Pitcher B, of course, is Vargas, from 2010-13. While Vargas doesn't come with as lengthy a track record, the past four years indicate that we can reasonably predict his output, at least for the next few seasons. Is Buehrle worth $6.5MM more than Vargas on an annual basis? Here's that pair's 2010-13 campaigns side-by-side:
|Games Started||Innings Pitched||K/9||BB/9||GB%||ERA||FIP||xFIP||SIERA|
Vargas probably isn't as good as Buehrle, but he has age on his side and fits a similar profile. Looking at other four-year deals, Edwin Jackson signed for $13MM annually just last offseason. While his peripheral stats are superior to those of Vargas, is he worth $20MM more over the life of a four-year deal? The market simply doesn't create opportunities to sign pitchers of Vargas' ilk for $8MM per year anymore. That level of AAV lands players like Joe Saunders and Joe Blanton or serious injury reclamation projects like Brandon McCarthy.
Sticker shock reigned supreme when Vargas' agreement was announced, but it's my feeling that most focused on the wrong of the two relevant numbers. Rather than looking at the four-year term, which admittedly feels like an overpay, the $8MM AAV is far more important. When I wrote my free agent profile on Vargas, I projected him to sign for three years and $28.5MM — an AAV of $9.5MM. I wound up being pretty close in terms of his total guarantee, but the Royals were able to secure that fourth year just a few million more.
There isn't a ton of room for upside in this deal, but 190-210 innings of league-average baseball has value, and the Royals secured that value at a relatively low annual rate by making the decision to pay a premium in terms of years. Had the two concepts been reversed and Vargas signed for two years and $22MM, would the contract have elicited such backlash? I lean toward no, since we're conditioned to expect that type of overpay. Overpaying in terms of years isn't something we're as accustomed to, but it could work out better for the Royals than doing so in terms of dollars. I certainly don't love this deal, but it's a defensible contract given the landscape of today's free agent market.
- Four years for Vargas is too many, ESPN's Keith Law argues (Insider-only). Vargas is already a below-average starter, Law argues, and it's optimistic to think Vargas' finesse style will hold up for four years, particularly given that his results so far have partly been a creation of favorable home parks in Seattle and Anaheim.
- The Angels were evidently in agreement that four years was too many. They would not give Vargas a fourth year, and instead offered him three years and $24MM, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times writes (Twitter links).
- Focusing on the number of years in the contract misses the point, writes Dave Cameron of FanGraphs. Vargas' deal only costs $8MM per year. He only needs to produce about 5 WAR over the course of the contract to justify the deal, and that seems possible, even if he isn't that likely to pitch well in the final season of the contract.
Let's take a look at the latest from Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, who's out with a new column of rumors from around the majors:
- A trade of second baseman Ian Kinsler or shortstop Elvis Andrus increasingly looks "inevitable" given the Rangers' crowded infield. "Some team is going to get a good middle infielder from the Rangers. The only question is which one," Rosenthal writes. It's unlikely, however, that the club packages infielder Jurickson Profar with other young players in a deal for a star such as David Price or Giancarlo Stanton. Rosenthal's sources say the Rangers want to keep their farm system stocked.
- Matt Garza's elbow shouldn't scare off potential suitors. Though he missed much of 2012 with an elbow issue, officials with both the Cubs and Rangers tell Rosenthal that the righty wasn't treated for elbow issues at all in 2013.
- There's mutual interest in a new deal between Southern California native Jason Vargas and the Angels, but Rosenthal's sources say the team is already examining other options and could move on from the left-hander if negotiations drag. Vargas may ultimately have to leave money on the table if he wants to remain with the club.
- The Orioles are at least considering options for a backup catcher, as Matt Wieters managed just a .628 OPS against lefties last season. Rosenthal notes that the O's could seek to move Wieters and target a replacement such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, as Wieters is unlikely to agree to an extension. However, trading him now would be selling low.
- Baltimore will also have to consider how they'll approach J.J. Hardy's impending free agency. Though Rosenthal writes that the Orioles' front office eventually aims to move Manny Machado to shortstop, it also views Hardy, who becomes a free agent after next season, as critical to the club.
- Executives from other teams are surprised at rumors that the Tigers are listening on Max Scherzer. Shipping Scherzer elsewhere and then losing Anibal Sanchez to an injury would be a major hit to the team's rotation.
- The Diamondbacks continue to wait for a reply from Dave Duncan on whether he will take their pitching coach job.