Royals

Vargas is a fine addition, but Royals needed to hit jackpot

Updated: 2013-11-22T06:06:43Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

The Royals are good again, finally, and not just by the lousy standards they’ve set for themselves over the last two decades. They are young and athletic and full of promise as they head toward a season that will determine so much about the last seven years of Processing and …

Jason Vargas?

Wait. Is that all?

Seven years of building and patience and promises about spending big money when the time comes, and the Royals begin a crucial offseason by watching the best available pieces fall off the market before grabbing a younger Bruce Chen.

It’s not that Vargas is a bad pitcher. He’s fine. He’s a no-frills-no-thrills lefty who makes up for an underwhelming fastball with good control and a very good changeup. Winning teams have had worse pitchers at the back of their rotations.

But the Royals needed an Escalade, and they bought themselves a Sorento.

This is an offseason for the Royals to make improvements from the outside, and they’re working on a net loss. The Royals pushed hard for free agent Tim Hudson, a legitimate heir to Ervin Santana’s No. 2 spot in the rotation, only to lose out to the Giants. They looked into Josh Johnson, a tantalizing gamble depending on health, but lost out to the Padres.

Phil Hughes is still out there, with his connections to Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, but the chances of another major addition to the rotation are considerably less than 50-50.

Vargas is a consolation prize, basically. Weighed against the expected loss of Santana to the free-agent market, then, well, the improvement of Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and others just became more important.

Much more important.

Same goes for adding a bat through free agency, especially if it’s Carlos Beltran of Curtis Granderson.

Anyway, Vargas makes some sense for the Royals. He made 96 starts from 2010 to 2012 before a bizarre injury (a blood clot in his armpit) limited him to 24 last year. He is a good bet for 185 innings or so of league-average production which, in the current climate, is enough for a four-year contract worth $32 million.

In major-league baseball terms, Vargas took slightly less than market value on his yearly salary to get an extra year and a bigger total guarantee. If Vargas is roughly as good in ages 31 to 34 as he was from 27 to 30, it’s a good baseball move, but that is not the standard of this Royals offseason.

This is a time for the Royals to stretch themselves, to take a gamble. They won 86 games last year and kept within squinting distance of a playoff spot into the start of the NFL season, which is quite an improvement. Attendance will be up next year, and all teams are getting an extra $25 million (before taxes) as part of the new national TV contracts.

So the Royals have the means, motivation and need to push outside their comfort zone. Instead — and the offseason is just starting, so this is still fluid — they are so far digging in and playing safe.

There is risk in holding back, too, and for a fan base that’s already been asked for too much patience, it would be nice to see their team seize the moment.

Look, there is a lot to like about the bigger picture for the Royals. They appear, finally, to have found an identity. They are self-made, spending a lot of money and sweat building a strong nucleus of young and talented players in what’s become one of the game’s better farm systems. They are athletic, playing the best defense in baseball last year ( by Defensive Runs Saved), and tough in the late innings with a stack of power arms.

But for a team built around pitching and defense, the starting rotation remains the most important element. Barring a major surprise, the Royals have only one more year with James Shields at the top of the rotation and are at least a year away from knowing what they have in Danny Duffy — let alone Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer.

In that context, if Vargas is indeed the substitute for Santana’s production, then they’re starting the season a half-step behind.

The Royals need a jackpot. They signed a consolation prize.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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