Vargas brings veteran presence to rotation
Royals coaches already impressed by what newly signed lefty should add
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Jason Vargas was sitting quietly on his clubhouse chair while his Royals teammates, sitting around a lunch table behind him, engaged in a noisy debate over the best quarterback in the NFL.
With the tumult as a backdrop, Vargas was asked if he's feeling comfortable with his new team, and a small smile emerged.
"As you can see, they argue well together," Vargas said, glancing over his shoulder. "They play well together, it seems like they get along like family. That's really what makes baseball fun and makes winning a lot easier when you go out there with a bunch of guys you like to play with."
Vargas, 31, has played with the Marlins, Mets, Mariners and Angels in his nine Major League seasons, but he has yet to reach the postseason. When he signed a four-year, $32 million deal with the Royals as a free agent this winter, that was on his mind.
"Over the last four or five years, they've definitely gone in the right direction as far as having a core group of guys that's getting better, and getting more confident and learning how to win in the big leagues as a team," Vargas said. "You saw that at the end of last year. Hopefully, the pieces that we've put together over the last couple of offseasons are going to help take us to that next level."
The Royals went after Vargas when Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen also went on the free-agent market. Chen returned and, in effect, Vargas is seen as the replacement for Santana. He might match Santana's pitching, but not his clubhouse repartee.
"He's just a very solid, quiet guy," manager Ned Yost said. "You hardly know he's there. You always see Bruce, you always see [James] Shields, but I don't always see Vargy. He just always blends in, does his thing. That's not saying he's not a huge part of the clubhouse out there, but he's just different, more quiet."
Vargas had his most success in 2012, when he was 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA in 33 starts for Seattle. Then, a year away from free agency, he was traded to the Angels for designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Vargas gave them a 9-8 record, but missed seven weeks when a blood clot in his left armpit required surgery.
That took care of the problem, just as 2008 surgery fixed a troublesome left hip that caused Vargas to miss that entire season. His hip surgery predated that, undergone by several players including Alex Rodriguez and the Royals' Alex Gordon.
"Luckily I got mine out of the way early and have been able to play at a high level again," Vargas said.
Indeed, Vargas was healthy enough that, in three successive years with Seattle (2010-12), he was able to grind out 192 2/3, 201 and 217 1/3 innings, respectively. Reaching 200 innings -- as Santana, Shields and Jeremy Guthrie did last year for the Royals -- is an important plateau.
"You're giving your team an opportunity to win," Vargas said. "That's the bottom line as far as what the starting pitcher needs to bring to the table. ERAs can go up and down, and you definitely don't want to get hit all over the yard, but if you're going out there and giving your team an opportunity to win, that means you're doing your job, and doing 200 innings is definitely giving your team an opportunity."
The more Yost sees Vargas, the more he's dazzled by the lefty's ability to spot his pitches on both sides of the plate. That's just part of it.
"No. 1, he's a tough competitor. No. 2, he's not a flamethrower, he's more of a command guy with good stuff," Yost said. "He throws strikes with three pitches. He utilizes his defense. He's got veteran experience. He doesn't panic. He's got great composure on the mound, which allows him to be a guy that's very durable, and a guy that goes deep in the games."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland, kiddingly dipping into the cliché drawer, called Vargas "a crafty lefty" before getting serious.
"He's savvy, he's been around for a while, he knows how to read swings, he knows himself," Eiland said. "He's the ultimate professional, a good guy, a pro, wants information, wants to be coached. Really, you can't ask for any more out of a guy."
So far, so good for Vargas in his four Spring Training starts. He has a 2.57 ERA with two walks and eight strikeouts in 14 innings. Only in the last of those 14 innings did Vargas have a problem, serving up two homers to the Padres on Sunday.
Vargas is a California guy, a product of Apple Valley at the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, and one-time home to cowboy cinema stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Out of high school, Vargas went to three colleges -- Louisiana State, then back to California for Cypress College, and Long Beach State. The Long Beach pitching coach and now head coach, Troy Buckley, proved to be a major influence.
"He definitely put me in the right direction as far as turning me into a pitcher that could compete, getting my delivery together and really teaching me how to get better as a pitcher," Vargas said.
Vargas was also a designated hitter for Long Beach, batting .354 with power. In fact, in the Majors (mostly with the Marlins), he's hit .262 (16-for-61).
Vargas married his high school sweetheart, and he and Shelley have three children: Joshua, 5; Elizabeth, 3; and Lucas, 3 months. They live in a mountainous area of Goodyear, Ariz., an easy drive from the Royals' training camp.
Vargas plays some golf, but he says he really doesn't have any hobbies except helping Shelley chase the children. His next chase is helping his new baseball family pursue the postseason.