The acquisition of Josh Hamilton gave the Angels what they wanted, but it also left the Angels with a little problem: between Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo, and Kendrys Morales, they had too many good players for too few spots. This was, as they say, a nice problem to have, and the Angels also felt they had a need for another innings-eating starting pitcher. So in a move surprising only because it went down between two teams in the same division, the Angels and Mariners have exchanged Morales and Jason Vargas, straight up. With one move, the Angels solved two perceived problems.
The whole trade is simple. It’s easy to understand, like an example transaction in Trading 101. The Angels had too many bats and too few starting pitchers, so they traded a bat for a starting pitcher. The Mariners wanted a bat more than they wanted to keep one of their starting pitchers. Morales didn’t fit in one place and he does fit in the other. Morales has one year left until free agency, and he’s projected to make just under $5 million. Vargas has one year left until free agency, too, and he’s projected to make just over $7 million. There are no prospects, no cash considerations, no players to be named later. Few transactions are this uncomplicated.
For the Angels, the consequences are twofold. Bourjos is now entrenched in center, flanked by Hamilton and Mike Trout. Trumbo will assume the regular DH role, and Vernon Wells will look on longingly from the dugout. And Vargas will take the fifth rotation slot from Garrett Richards, who becomes presumably necessary depth. Don’t think of this as the Angels giving Richards the boot; think of this as the Angels demoting Richards from fifth starter to sixth starter. Almost every single season, a team will need to call upon a sixth starter, and Richards will pitch.
If you believe even a little bit in Bourjos, then you’re of the opinion that the Angels just made the right call, because Bourjos’ defense alone makes him an asset and his offense isn’t hopeless. He and Trumbo are also under team control for a while, whereas Morales is not. What we should focus on now is exactly who Jason Vargas is. Because he’s the new guy, and he’s going to play a lot, as the Angels gun for the playoffs.
Vargas was a regular in the Mariners’ rotation between 2009-2012, and he posted a 4.09 ERA. He’s a lefty with a changeup and the corresponding fly-ball rate. Two years in a row he’s surpassed 200 innings, which makes him more appealing from the Angels’ perspective. But Vargas has also been a fly-ball lefty in Safeco Field, and these Mariners splits are extreme. Following are Vargas’ home and road performances over the last four seasons:
You see something like that and immediately you think the player is doomed if you remove him from his environment. Against Vargas in Seattle, opponents have hit like Darwin Barney. Against Vargas on the road, opponents have hit like Jon Jay. It makes intuitive sense that Vargas would flourish in the old Safeco, and that’s what we observe, and this has to be of some concern.
But the good news is that the Angels play in a run-suppressing ballpark, too. It’s not quite like Safeco has been, but it’s pitcher-friendly, and what’s also pitcher-friendly is the prospect of allowing fly balls and having Trout and Bourjos in pursuit of them. Just as Vargas has benefited from his environment in the past, so it should go in the future, and he’ll give the Angels the innings they’ve been seeking. He should be unspectacular and effective enough.
With Vargas, the Angels can worry less about what’s been going on inside Tommy Hanson. They know they have a little depth now, and they can afford one guy not working out. Vargas is affordable and he’s gone in a year if not re-signed, but he also went to school in Long Beach and might stick around if he likes it, and if the Angels like it too. Vargas is leaving a good place for a good place, and a better team.
On the other end of this, the Mariners opened up a hole in the rotation to fill a hole in the lineup. The Mariners, as is, aren’t better than they were a day ago, but they might have more luck luring a pitcher than a hitter, and they’ve been looking for a hitter for weeks, if not months, if not years. Morales can play first base, and he’ll push Justin Smoak. Smoak also has an option, and Morales can also DH, and presumed DH Jesus Montero can also catch. Right now, there are four players for three spots, at least two of whom are good hitters, with the other two being developing prospects, but this is not a logjam like the Angels’ recent logjam.
Morales was a well above-average hitter in 2012, and he was even better before his injury. He’s one of the worst baserunners in the league, and he swings a lot while rarely walking, but his power is undeniable and the Mariners might now feel more free to pursue Michael Bourn, knowing they acquired a so-called big bat. It shouldn’t be ignored that the Mariners will save money in this deal, and were willing to guarantee Josh Hamilton $25 million a year last week. There’s financial flexibility there, and the Mariners will try to remain active. Morales doesn’t seem to make them better, but there are more pathways to get better from here.
The Angels got a thing they wanted for a thing they didn’t have a real use for. The Mariners got a thing they wanted for a thing they didn’t mind giving up. If neither player works out, they’ll become free agents next fall. The big winner here is Peter Bourjos, who’s going to start and who stands a chance of flourishing. And the only-slightly-less-big winner here is Jason Vargas, who’s going from a good situation to a good situation and a contending roster. The Angels still might not be the best team in the American League West, but they’re actively addressing all their problems.