The Orioles and Jason Vargas

The still-surprising Baltimore Orioles are rumored to be “poking around” on Seattle Mariners pitcher Jason Vargas. I am not sure how that sort of physical contact is permissible (nailed it!), but it makes some sense for the Orioles to try and improve their team. Is Vargas the right pitcher to aim for, though, even if they can’t get player like Matt Garza?

Vargas (29) floundered around for a few years on the Marlins, Mets, and his initial work in Seattle. His main problem was the long ball. While Vargas mostly displayed good control, he did not strike out enough hitters to make up for his gopher-itis. Seattle’s massive park was a good fit. In 2010, he did quite well, with both his ERA and FIP being under four. He was not quite as good in 2011, but still managed around 200 innings of roughly league-average pitching. This year has been better according to FIP, worse according to ERA (they are virtually identical for his career: 4.45 ERA and 4.48 FIP). His strikeouts and walks are better, but more balls are leaving the park on him.

Would he make sense as a low-end trade option for Baltimore? Starting with the Orioles’ overall situation: low-end trade options do seem to make sense for them. While they are seven games behind the Yankees, they do have a shot at one of the two American League wild-card spots. Even if one thinks (just to put some hypothetical examples out there) that the Tigers, Rays, or Red Sox have more talent than the Orioles over the rest of the season, things are tight enough that if the Orioles can make small improvements to their team without trading away much of consequence for the future (as they did with the Jim Thome trade), it would make sense. A couple of months ago, it was understandable if people were skeptical, but at this point in the season, they have a real shot.

The Orioles could use another starter. Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen have both been very good, but with Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz struggling and demoted (although Arrieta may have been suffering through some “bad luck” with runners on base) and Chris Tillman not exactly a sure thing after one good start, there is a great deal up in the air for the Orioles’ rotation at the moment. Given that the playoffs are far from a sure thing for them, giving up good young, cost-controlled talent for the likes of Matt Garza would be a really bad idea at this stage in the rebuilding process that should still be going on in the background.

Vargas would not cost that much, probably. His salary this year is just under $5 million, and next year would probably be around $7 or $8 million, assuming he is offered aribtration (it would be his last season of team control). That’s not a bad price for a pitcher of Vargas’ quality, but it is not dirt cheap, either. Assuming no money changes hands, the Orioles would not (or should not) have to give up much of consequence for him. It would probably take a a non-elite minor-leaguer or two, or something along those lines.

But is Vargas a good fit? Some people will point to his big home-away splits. However, by itelf that is not really sufficient analysis for any player. Almost all players perform better at home. Yes, Safeco is is pitcher’s park, but we would expect pretty much any pitcher to have better numbers there. Moreover, home-road splits vary widely year-to-year for most players; they are not great predictors on an individual level. Taking a different sort of case, remember how Matt Latos’ good numbers away from Petco where supposed to show that the park was not helping him, and that he would be just as good elsewhere? Uh, yeah…

SafeCo has helped Vargas, but just noting that does not really get us that far. After all, moving from a pitchers park to a hitter’s park does hurt a pitcher’s un-adjusted numbers, but runs are also individually less valuable relative to a win in a hitter’s park. This does not mean we should ignore the park, but we should look more closely.

And, yes, there is an issue. Look at the home run factors for Safeco and Camden Yards. Safeco’s home run factor is 96, while Camden Yards’ is 109 (these numbers are already adjusted to account for playing half of the teams’ games away). While I do not think Vargas is a 14.6 percent home run per fly ball pitcher (his 2012 rate so far) in terms of his “true talent,” he is a fly ball pitcher. His low home run rates in 2010 and 2011 were likely to regress, and were likely quite park-influenced. Put him in Camden, and things could get pretty ugly.

The Orioles have surprised just about everyone this year and are in a nice position for a shot at the playoffs. It makes sense for them to “poke around” while looking for low-cost improvements. However, given his pitching style and the Orioles’ home park, it does not seem like Jason Vargas would be the best choice for the Orioles, unless their goal is simply to improve on Tommy Hunter.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.