The Brewers tried but were unable to find a team interested in trading for Vargas, who turns 30 in June and was due $3.6 million in 2008. He already cleared outright waivers, meaning all 30 teams could have had him for $20,000, and will be on release waivers until Thursday, meaning a team could claim him for $1 but would be on the hook for his full salary. Assuming he clears, Vargas will be a free agent free to sign a new contract with any club.
There was a financial component to the timing of the move. Wednesday is the deadline to request release waivers on a player and owe only a quarter of his salary, so the Brewers will owe Vargas only $900,000.
But Yost and general manager Doug Melvin billed it as a baseball decision, not a financial one. Club officials ranked Vargas seventh on the depth chart among the starting pitchers, behind the five who will break camp in the starting rotation plus right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who is rehabbing a knee injury and is expected back in the big leagues in mid-April. Keeping Vargas would have limited the team's options when Gallardo returned to action.
"It was very, very heavily debated," Yost said. "But it always came back to [the fact] that [Vargas] was the seventh guy on our staff, in all of our discussions and all the things that we talked about."
Yost had preached depth all spring but now the team is gambling that its starters will stay healthy. With left-hander Chris Capuano likely out for the year with a torn elbow ligament, the top backup options at Triple-A will be Narveson and Zach Jackson, both left-handers with little Major League experience.
As he packed his locker and said goodbyes just before noon on Tuesday, Vargas had already spoken with his agent, Bean Stringfellow, about what comes next. Stringfellow also represents former Brewers closer Francisco Cordero, who spurned an offer from the Brewers last winter for a richer deal with Cincinnati.
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"I feel bad, a little bit," Vargas said. "I've pitched well in Spring Training, and they signed me, too. They should have thought before they signed me about how many pitchers they have here in Spring Training fighting for a job.
"But, you know, everything in life happens for a reason. I am not going to put my head down because I know I did good and a lot of teams need pitching in the big leagues. This was one of the best springs I had in my whole career."
The numbers were not particularly pretty last season, but it was difficult to quibble with Vargas' results. He went 11-9 in his first season with the Brewers, and the team was 16-7 in his starts despite his 5.09 ERA. Still, Vargas pitched only 134 1/3 innings in 29 games, including six relief appearances, and missed time with a back injury.
"I know my ERA was a little high last year and I got hurt, but I was winning a lot of games for the team," Vargas said. "I feel bad they didn't see that, but what can you do? Somebody will see."
Vargas' release stunned some of his teammates, including Villanueva, who hit an RBI single and pitched six strong innings of an eventual 3-3 tie to the Dodgers at Maryvale Baseball Park. When informed by reporters that he had won a spot on the team, Villanueva had a surprising response.
"It's a sad day for us and for me," Villanueva said. "Claudio was a mentor and a very good friend. But at the same time, I'm excited because it opens it up for me and Manny. ... I really didn't want to see Claudio go, but I understand that it's a business, too."
Parra, whose candidacy was in question after two poor spring starts, was equally surprised.
"I didn't see that coming," Parra said. "I guess it goes to show you never know what's going to happen. I'm just glad to be given the opportunity. I'm excited."