By Mike DiGiovanna Los Angeles Times
TEMPE, Ariz. — Nine years after their Long Beach State team fell just short of the College World Series, Jason Vargas and Jered Weaver were together again, side by side, throwing their first spring-training bullpen sessions as Los Angeles Angels teammates Tuesday.
“It’s strange, it’s cool,” said Vargas, the 30-year-old left-hander acquired from Seattle for Kendrys Morales in December. “It’s a little of both.”
Long Beach State Coach Troy Buckley, the 49ers’ pitching coach when Vargas and Weaver were college teammates in 2004, had another word for it.
“It’s unbelievable,” Buckley said. “It’s almost like your stepsons are coming home. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys from our program do great things. To have them in our backyard, to be able to see them in Angel Stadium and on television all the time, it’s a huge pleasure for us.”
Weaver, a first-round pick of the Angels in 2004, has spent his entire career in the organization, developing into a staff ace and signing a five-year, $85-million extension that will keep him in Anaheim through 2016.
Vargas, who shared an Irvine apartment with Weaver for part of 2004, took a more circuitous route to this college reunion. The Apple Valley High graduate attended three colleges — Louisiana State, Cypress College and Long Beach State — in three years before he became a second-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2004.
He reached the big leagues by 2005 but had a 7.33 earned-run average in 12 games in 2006 and was traded to the New York Mets. An elbow injury slowed Vargas in 2007, hip surgery sidelined him for all of 2008, and the Mets sent him to the Mariners in a three-team, 12-player trade that off-season.
Vargas found his bearings — and a seamless delivery and effective changeup — in Seattle, where he emerged as a durable and reliable starter. He had a record of 36-42 with a 4.09 ERA in four years, a resume that prompted Angels GM Jerry Dipoto to part with a 25-home run threat to acquire Vargas.
Vargas had his best season in 2012, with a 14-11 record and 3.85 ERA in 33 starts, striking out 141 and walking 55 in a career-high 2171/3 innings. Vargas led the Mariners in wins and ranked fourth in the AL with 22 quality starts.
His only blemish was the 35 home runs he gave up, the second-most in baseball and 13 more than he’d given up in any previous season. Not surprisingly, 26 came on the road and nine were in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
But Vargas also made progress in that department. After yielding 23 home runs in the first half, he gave up 12 in the second.
“I guess I stopped throwing pitches that were elevated as much,” said Vargas, who is signed for $8.5 million this season. “I got in a stretch where I gave up a lot of solo homers. Some were game-changers, but it wasn’t anything that caused me to think something was wrong.”
Vargas is not overpowering — his fastball averaged 88 mph last season — and he doesn’t have a breaking ball he considers an out pitch. So when he misses with his fastball, his mistakes can travel far.
“Jason is very aggressive, he’s not afraid of contact, he’s not going to try to pitch around the bat,” Buckley said. “The strike zones and the parks are small, and the guys are big. You’re going to give up some homers. But his entire body of work in the last two or three years has been outstanding.”
The home runs didn’t scare off the Angels. Their stadium is home run-stingy, and with the speedy and rangy Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton roaming the outfield, many long fly balls will be chased down.
“If he’s going to miss with a spot and they square it up, so be it, but that’s not the barometer of how he will be valued,” manager Mike Scioscia said of Vargas. “His numbers are very strong, and he definitely knows how to pitch. The bottom line is how effective you are, and Jason has been very effective.”