The Royals are hoping to cash in again on another Angels castoff after filling their biggest offseason need Thursday afternoon by reaching agreement with free-agent pitcher Jason Vargas on a four-year deal for $32 million.
“He always gives you a chance to win,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “He’s been one of the more consistent pitchers over the last few years.
“We feel it’s important to sign guys with the mindset that they’re going to compete, give us innings and give our team a chance to win games. He was, really, one of the first targets that we had this offseason.”
Vargas, a 30-year-old lefty, projects as a replacement for free-agent Ervin Santana, who priced himself beyond the Royals’ financial means by seeking a five-year deal for $112 million. The Royals acquired Santana a little over a year ago in a trade with the Angels.
“The biggest thing for me,” Vargas said, “was being able to be in a place where I knew I was going to be for a significant amount of time and with an organization where I felt comfortable.”
To make room for Vargas on their 40-man roster, the Royals designated backup catcher George Kottaras for assignment Thursday night. Kottaras had been among the team’s 10 players eligible for salary arbitration.
Vargas’ four-year deal is the longest given by the Royals to a free agent since they signed pitcher Gil Meche in December 2007 for five years at $55 million.
“Our medical team felt very comfortable,” Moore said. “Our scouting judgment was very sound with the length of the contract as well. It all lined up together. The bottom line is Jason is going to fit well in our rotation.”
Vargas was 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts last season for the Angels despite missing two months — mid-June to mid-August — following surgery to remove a blood clot in his left armpit.
“There were no (new) tests or anything,” said Vargas, who made 96 starts for Seattle from 2010-12. “I’m 100 percent and ready to get after it. There’s nothing lingering or any further things that need to take place.”
Vargas was the American League’s pitcher of the month for May after going 5-0 with a 2.30 ERA in six starts. He twice pitched the Angels to victories over the Royals in that span.
“I don’t know how devastating the repertoire might be,” he said. “It’s your basics: fastball, curveball and change-up. I just go out there and try to mix it up and keep them off-balance.”
The Royals won’t forfeit a draft pick by signing Vargas because the Angels chose not to make a qualifying offer of one year at $14.1 million. Clubs that sign players who received such offers lose their first- or second-round pick.
Moore previously identified a proven veteran starting pitcher as the club’s primary offseason target. The Royals pushed hard to sign right-hander Tim Hudson before losing out earlier in the week to San Francisco.
Signing Vargas pushes the Royals’ projected payroll to about $87 million, and Moore indicated any further additions are likely to require corresponding financial reductions. That would seem to rule out another major free-agent signing.
“There are still ways we can improve our team in the rotation,” Moore said, “and, obviously, by trying to add another bat.We’ll continue to look for opportunities to improve our offense.”
Moore indicated the club remains interested in retaining veteran pitcher Bruce Chen, probably in a swingman role, but acknowledged there is now little chance of re-signing Santana.
“It’s probably a difficult maneuver for us at this point in time,” Moore said, “but we’ll stay engaged, and we’ll see how that unfolds.”
The Royals also signed right-hander P.J. Walters, 28, to a minor-league deal. He spent most of last season at Class AAA Rochester in the Minnesota system but also went 2-5 with a 5.95 ERA in eight big-league starts.
Vargas pitched four seasons in Seattle before going to the Angels in a Dec. 19, 2012 trade for first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Vargas also spent time with the Marlins and Mets in compiling a 51-58 record over eight seasons with a 4.30 ERA.
Now, he’s a Royal.
“It’s been a quick few days (of negotiations),” he said, “but I’m really happy to be here. I’m looking forward to being a part of this (team). Their defense is spectacular. I’m hoping I can be a piece of the puzzle that helps move us forward.”
The Royals intensified their efforts to sign Vargas after losing out on Hudson, who signed a two-year deal Monday with the Giants for $23 million. Hudson, 38, indicated all along that he preferred to remain in the National League after nine seasons in Atlanta.
“We wanted to sign Tim Hudson,” Moore admitted. “We were in it until the end.”
The Royals then saw another of their offseason targets come off the board later in the week when right-hander Josh Johnson signed with San Diego for one year at $8 million. Like Hudson, Johnson said he preferred to sign with an NL team.
They also pursued Phil Hughes before settling on Vargas.
Moore’s penchant for a major acquisition(s) prior to the Winter Meetings, which begin Dec. 9 in Orlando, Fla., is well-documented. A year ago, he acquired Santana and retained free-agent pitcher Jeremy Guthrie prior to the meetings.
That followed 2012’s pre-meetings move to obtain pitcher Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants (with pitcher Ryan Verdugo for outfielder Melky Cabrera), and the free-agent signings of pitchers Jonathan Broxton and Chen.
“It all depends on when some players are ready to engage,” Moore said. “Hudson moved very quickly. There are other players who want to wait. So it’s just a matter of the player’s timing.
“The timing is different for every player, and you’ve got to be ready to engage and compete to win the negotiations when the player decides he’s ready to decide.”