After proving he can be a solid relief option, Cesar Vargas is showing that he might be even better as a starting pitcher.
The Padres prospect struck out seven over seven one-hit innings as Double-A San Antonio fell to Springfield, 2-0, on Friday at Hammons Field.
Vargas, who did not figure in the decision, faced the minimum while going seven innings for the first time since July 23, 2013 while pitching for Class A Charleston. On Friday, the 24-year-old right-hander yielded just a fourth-inning single to left field by Harrison Bader, who was caught stealing second to end the frame. Vargas threw 47 of 74 pitches for strikes and induced eight ground-ball outs.
"Very clean game," Missions pitching coach Jimmy Jones said. "His fastball and his curveball were the main pitches. He had really good command, he had a feel for his breaking pitches. His fastball is a cut fastball, and with his command, hitters have a hard time squaring it up. His curveball acted more like an off-speed pitch, so the hitters, their timing wasn't very good. He was working in and out, so they had a hard time being able to see him and square him up."
After seven years in the Yankees organization, Vargas joined San Diego as a free agent in the offseason. This year, the Mexico native has a 1.42 ERA and 14 strikeouts over 12 2/3 innings in two Texas League starts. Vargas had spent the previous two seasons working out of the bullpen, notching 19 saves in 23 chances between 2014-15.
"He is a four-pitch mix guy, really fluid, easy arm action. Just something if you were to watch him, you'd say he could profile as a starter," Jones said. "He's not one of these max-effort guys where if they throw 40-45 pitches you'd say they were gassed. He's really efficient and fluid."
Having made 90 relief appearances over the last two seasons, Vargas is on a 75-pitch limit in the early going. Jones thinks that stamina isn't the hardest part of moving back to the rotation though.
"Just like any other starter, the preparation is the same," the former Major Leaguer said. "With him, it's not even physical. It's just getting your mind to the point where you can be out there for 2 1/2 hours and make the pitches when you need to later in the game. That's more of a challenge than what he needed physically."
Another challenge for the 6-foot-2 hurler is utilizing his entire repertoire, which includes a slider and a changeup. As a reliever who averaged fewer than two frames per appearance, Vargas didn't have much of a chance to work in all four pitches on a consistent basis.
"It would be really hard for a reliever to use all four pitches in a one-inning stint," Jones said. "If you're coming in for one or two innings, it's hard to get to those four pitches, specifically a changeup. He'll definitely need to use all four pitches in the future."
Lefty Ramon Benjamin (0-1) relieved Vargas and gave up two runs on two hits while recording one out to take the loss. Righty Eric Yardley retired the only two batters he faced, fanning one.
David Washington provided the winning margin for the Cardinals with a two-run homer to left in the eighth.
Starter Daniel Poncedeleon was strong for Springfield, giving up five hits while fanning seven over 7 1/3 innings in a no-decision. Chris Thomas (1-0) retired the final two batters in the eighth to earn the win, and Ronnie Shaban surrendered a hit in the ninth before earning his second save.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.