Signing Jason Vargas wasn’t about saving the 2014 Kansas City Royals. Does four years seem a long time for a soon-to-be 31-year old with a career earned run average of 4.30? Probably. But the signing isn’t just about the vacuum around Vargas. It’s about developing Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer and providing the Royals with enough starting pitching depth and one of the game’s most powerful bullpens to break in their young pitchers and contend for a post-season appearance for the first time since they won the World Series in 1985. It really has been that long, Dane Iorg.
Watching the building of these Royals and their attention to the development side of the game, there are some who felt their progress to an 86-67 finish was in some ways a disappointment. That, of course, is unfair, because this is a franchise that when it won the World Series in 1985 had, in a ten year span, finished first six times, won two pennants and that World Series, and since ’92 had two 80 win seasons, 1993 and 2003. We watched Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, et al grow, watched as Dayton Moore traded one significant chip (Wil Myers) for James Shields and Wade Davis and realizing how much opposing players and managers respected their athletic talent and bullpen figured they, not the Indians, would be team out of the American League Central to join the Tigers in the playoffs.
And now 2014 is another part of the growth process, important before Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland, Cain, Tim Collins and others become arbitration-eligible.
So, while some may figure four years on Jason Vargas is a stretch, this is how Moore looks at this team, given the backdrop of the last 20 years in a market that is small in population and huge in baseball history. “The team we have in the field has a lot of ability,” says Moore, “especially if we can keep the center fielder (Cain) healthy and playing.”
Hosmer’s maturity process began with George Brett and finished with an .801 OPS and 3.1 WAR, both with a bullet. Perez is an elite talent. Billy Butler can really hit. Alex Gordon is a wonderful all-around player capable of much more than .265 with a .749 OPS. Despite a .175 September, Mike Moustakas showed signs of an improved approach with Brett. While Alcides Escobar had excellent defensive metrics, that .259 OBP isn’t enough, but Moore needs to sift through available veterans for stability and guidance, which is why clubs like the Royals and Marlins will have Mark Ellis on their radars.
Moore figures Hosmer, Perez, Cain and Moustakas improve. He has the hardest-throwing bullpen in the league, one that finished first in the American League in strikeout-walk ratio, second in save percentage, first in strikeouts and first in lowest OPS.
They have the three prime young arms on the way, Duffy, Ventura, Zimmer.
What they need to give the position players a chance to win, get to the bullpen and provide a safety net for the young pitchers are veteran starters. Shields led the league in starts and quality starts. Guthrie was second to Shields in starts. They are losing Ervin Santana to free agency, but with Duffy and Vargas they hope they make up for his loss, and presuming that by 2015 all three young, high-ceiling pitchers are ready to contribute, a Vargas who can put together a five WAR over five years at an AAV of $8M may be worth it in terms of the reliability of the safety net. Is he that much better than Bruce Chen over four years? Who knows?
What the Royals show us is how treacherous a line young teams walk when they’re developing young players. The Indians got it, hence the presence of Jason Giambi as an important team figure. The Cubs are going to need some stabilizers in two years. The Marlins never had them, hence some of their issues, while the Rays have done a remarkable job balancing youth, experience and development on $12.95 a month.
It’s not hard to imagine the Royals having one of those years in 2014 when they send three, four or even five players to the All-star game, and someone like Ventura or Zimmer bursts down the aisle and with Shields and the other veteran starters and bullpen be the Indians of 2014. That requires depth, hence Vargas, hence a few off-season additions, and it requires the maturation process to be fast-forwarded.
The Cubs will be watching. So will the Twins, who are going to be very talented very quickly. So will the Mariners, who are still hoping after hope that the young players they’ve put in Safeco Park these last two years grow up. So will the Astros.
The point isn’t about Jason Vargas, it is about Jason Vargas seen through the prisms of Duffy, Ventura and Zimmer, because they are hugely important to the future of the Kansas City Royals, significant talents that need bridges to cross to get to the Saberhagen/Gubicza/Jackson promised land.