Just when Peter Bourjos thought he was out, the Angels pulled him back in, clearing a spot for the speedy center fielder Wednesday by trading designated hitter Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Jason Vargas.
Vargas, who turns 30 on Feb. 2, will deepen the rotation — the former Long Beach State teammate of Angels ace Jered Weaver went 14-11 with a 3.85 earned-run average in 33 starts last season, striking out 141 and walking 55 in 217 1/3 innings.
The Angels paid a fair price for a durable pitcher who has a 3.83 ERA and has averaged 203 2/3 innings over the last three seasons — the switch-hitting Morales, 29, batted .273 with 22 home runs and 73 runs batted in last season.
But they didn’t have to give up one of their coveted youngsters, either Bourjos, a superb defender with offensive potential, or slugger Mark Trumbo, who has 61 homers and 182 RBIs in the past two seasons.
“That was very much a part of the plan,” Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “It’s been a priority for us to keep as much of our young nucleus in place as possible.”
In November, after the Angels let right fielder Torii Hunter leave as a free agent, Dipoto said he was committed to an outfield of Mike Trout in left, Trumbo in right and Bourjos, who lost his starting job to Trout last May, in center.
Then the Angels signed outfielder Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million deal last week, and it appeared Bourjos would be demoted to the bench or traded, with Manager Mike Scioscia saying he would use Trout in center, Hamilton in left and Trumbo in right.
But with Morales heading to Seattle, where he will play first base and DH, Dipoto said Bourjos will play center and Trumbo would be the primary DH while playing some outfield and first base.
Trout will play mostly left field and some center, and Hamilton and first baseman Albert Pujols will play some DH, which should help preserve them physically.
“We’re not strangled by an overwhelming number of players who are limited in what they can do defensively,” Dipoto said. “This gives us more flexibility and makes us a more balanced and better defensive club.”
Dipoto said Vargas will be slotted “right in the middle” of a rotation headed by Weaver and left-hander C.J. Wilson and filled out by right-handers Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. Jerome Williams probably will pitch in long relief, with young right-hander Garrett Richards expected to start at triple-A Salt Lake.
“This really fits a need for us,” Dipoto said. “We were looking for a steady, reliable left-hander who has a history of throwing a lot of innings.”
Vargas, like Weaver and Blanton, is a fly-ball pitcher who should benefit from pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium and one of baseball’s best defensive outfields. He has a 3-1 record and 2.27 ERA in seven games in Anaheim and a 5-4 career mark and 2.65 ERA in 13 games against the Angels.
“I’ve loved pitching there,” Vargas, a graduate of Apple Valley High, said of Angel Stadium. “It’s familiar scenery for me, having played in the same division and gone there as a kid. It’s a comfortable place for me.”
Vargas won’t overpower hitters — his fastball averages 88 mph — but he has an outstanding changeup that he mixes with a cut fastball and curve. One of the few blemishes on an otherwise outstanding 2012 was a career-high 35 homers allowed.
“His changeup is his out pitch, his calling card,” Dipoto said. “It gets him out of jams.”
Vargas is entering his final year of arbitration and is projected to make $7.4 million next season, which will push the Angels’ payroll to about $162 million.
Morales, who returned in 2012 after missing 1 1/2 years because of a broken left ankle, is projected to make $4.8 million in his final year of arbitration and was expected to depart as a free agent after 2013.
“I’m sad to see Kendrys go,” Dipoto said. “He battled through adversity to come back and have a solid season for us last year. But at the same time, we’re happy to bring Vargas in.”