One day in mid-February, when the Royals were still straggling into camp, Luke Hochevar walked with a few teammates toward a four-pack of mounds. He spotted Jason Vargas toeing the rubber.
“Come on,” Hochevar said to the group. “Let’s go watch Vargas not miss a spot.”
The value of Vargas, the recipient of the second-largest free-agent contract in franchise history, is subtle, the stuff of pinpoint bullpen sessions and off-field nonchalance. During his first few weeks as a Royal, Vargas appears to be what the Royals paid $32 million for: Mid-rotation ballast for a group headlined by James Shields and hopefully invigorated by prospects like Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.
His fastball does not sizzle. His height does not crack 6 feet. Inside the Royals clubhouse, an atmosphere dominated by outsized personalities like Shields and Bruce Chen, “you hardly know he’s there,” manager Ned Yost said.
Vargas inherited the No. 2 slot in the rotation vacated by Ervin Santana. His acquisition also prohibited the team from a serious pursuit of Santana once Santana’s free-agent market collapsed later in the winter. The organization felt compelled to move quickly, and agreed to terms with Vargas in November.
What appealed to the club about Vargas was not his ceiling, but his floor. He provides reliability as a back-end starter. For the past four seasons with the Mariners and Angels, he averaged 190 innings and a 3.97 ERA. Team officials insist they are not worried about the blood clot in his arm that required surgery and sidelined him two months in 2013.
He fits into a rotation with an interesting mix of young and old. Ventura is considered the favorite to win the fifth spot. Duffy is expected to contribute at some point this season. The team harbors a similar wish for top prospect Kyle Zimmer. Vargas adds to the veteran balance.
“You pretty much know what you’re going to get with Vargas, Shields and (Jeremy) Guthrie every time they go out,” Yost said. “With these (younger) guys, you don’t know if you’re going to see a no-hitter or if they’re going to struggle for four innings.”
Added pitching coach Dave Eiland, “Every five days, you know what you’re getting.”
Thus far, Vargas has lived up to his billing. He tossed five innings of three-run baseball in Sunday’s 9-6 victory over the Padres. He cruised for four innings before allowing a pair of homers in the fifth.
“Other than that,” Vargas said, “it was a good day.”
Vargas operates with a simple stockpile of pitches. He throws an 87-mph fastball, a change-up and a curveball. Last year he ditched a cutter he had utilized in years past. He relies on guile, location and adjustments.
“It’s amazing when I watch his sides the quickness with which he’s able to make an adjustment,” Yost said. “It’s like one pitch. ‘Oh, yeah. I see it.’ ”
In the first inning on Sunday, Vargas stuffed a fastball on the hands of Everth Cabrera, who pulled the ball past the left-field foul pole. On the next pitch, Vargas tossed a change-up that sent Cabrera’s lumber sailing into the stands for a strikeout.
Earlier that morning, Eiland referred to Vargas as “an absolute joy to work with,” a veteran who still seeks feedback and searches for improvements. And he does it so quietly.
“You always see Bruce (in the clubhouse),” Yost said. “You always see Shields. I don’t always see Vargy. He just blends in, does his thing. That’s not saying that he’s not a huge part of that clubhouse in there.”