I always thought Javier Vazquez got a raw deal in his one season as a Yankee. When he was traded, I wrote on my old blog that “the Yankees were giving up on a 29-year-old pitcher who had pitched like an ace for four and a half seasons because of a mere three months of poor pitching.” That his results with the Diamondbacks and the White Sox the next two seasons were underwhelming soothed my ire, but I still viewed him as a missed opportunity right up until the Yankees reacquired him from the Braves yesterday.
To be fair, Vazquez isn’t an ace, which was part of the problem in 2004. In his final four season with the Expos, Vazquez posted a 3.65 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and 3.91 K/BB, numbers that, coming from a 26-year-old pitcher, looked like the early work of a developing ace, which is exactly what Vazquez was acquired to be, arriving in the Bronx in the wake of the departures of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells. In the first half of the 2004 season, Vazquez came close, going 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 2.97 K/BB, enough for him to make his first All-Star Team.
Then Vazquez’s shoulder began to ache (though he wouldn’t admit it until years later), and his season went off the rails. In the second half, he posted a 6.92 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and lost another strikeout per nine off his K rate while giving up 14 home runs in as many starts, or 1.6 HR/9, enough to earn him the derogatory nickname “Home Run Javy.” Things didn’t get better in his ALDS start against the Twins as he put the Yankees in a 5-1 hole that they nonetheless climbed out of thanks to Ruben Sierra’s game-tying homer in the eighth and Alex Rodriguez’s self-made run in the 11th inning. At that point, Joe Torre, who had put Vazquez on the All-Star team just three months earlier, pulled him from the ALCS rotation. Vazquez pitched in relief of Kevin Brown twice in that series, both times without much success. In the latter instance, he was brought into Game Seven with the bases loaded and gave up a first-pitch grand slam to Johnny Damon that drove the final nail in the 2004 Yankees’ coffin.
Leading up the trading deadline that season, the big rumor was that the Yankees were going to trade for Randy Johnson, but the Diamondbacks wanted Vazquez and the Yankees refused. After that brutal second half, the Yankees softened on their stance. In what might have been the last big player transaction motivated by George Steinbrenner, Vazquez was traded to Arizona with lefty Brad Halsey and catching prospect Dioner Navarro for Johnson.
The irony was that, over the next two seasons, Johnson and Vazquez were nearly identical in terms of results. Dig:
Johnson: 100 ERA+, 8.0 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 430 2/3 IP
Vazquez: 99 ERA+, 8.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 418 1/3 IP
Neither was an ace. Both maintained their good stuff, but a showed propensity to give up the long ball and a frustrating inconsistency. Vazquez spent the second of those two seasons as a member of the White Sox, having been obtained by the defending World Champions for past and future Yankee pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Luis Vizcaino (whom the Yankees acquired when they dealt Johnson back to the desert), and center field prospect Chris Young.
Vazquez shaved a run off his ERA in his second season in Chicago without a meaningful change in his overall performance, then gave most of that back in his third and final season on the South Side, after which he was dealt to the Braves with LOOGY Boone Logan for a quartet of prospects led by slugging catcher Tyler Flowers. The return to the weaker, non-DH league worked expected wonders for Vazquez as he posted career bests in ERA, WHIP, and his strikeout, homer, walk, and hit rates, garnering his first-ever Cy Young votes (he finished fourth).
Despite the variations in his results, Vazquez has actually proven to be one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball over the last decade. Aside from his lone Yankee season, when his struggles led to early exits leaving him at just 198 innings pitched for the year, Vazquez has thrown more than 200 innings every other year this decade and started 32 or more games in each of the last ten seasons, a streak unmatched in the majors. In those ten seasons, he has only twice had a K/9 below 8.0 (2004 again being one of the two exceptions) and has never walked as many as three men per nine innings over the course of a full season. Over those ten seasons, he has posted a 3.98 ERA (113 ERA+) with a 1.22 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 3.79 K/BB, and a fairly pedestrian 1.1 HR/9. Brought back to the Bronx not as a potential ace, but as an overqualified mid-rotation innings eater, he has a much greater chance of success, both because of the lowered expectations, and because of his additional five years of experience, maturity, and conditioning.
In essence, Vazquez is A.J. Burnett without the injury history or the excessive contract (Javy’s actually entering the final year of an extension he signed with the White Sox that pays him $11.5 million for 2010). Burnett trumps Vazquez in that he’s spent several years in the AL East and is more of a groundball pitcher, but again, Vazquez isn’t being asked to replace Burnett as the number-two. He’s merely being asked to give the Yankees quality starts from the third or fourth spot in the rotation, a task of which he should be perfectly capable.
Now the question is, did the Yankees give up too much for one year of an above-average innings eater with a fly-ball tendency that could be exposed in the new Yankee Stadium? Maybe, but probably not. The players being sent to Atlanta for Vazquez are Melky Cabrera, lefty reliever Mike Dunn, and teenage pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino.
Dunn was a fungible bullpen arm, ostensibly replaced by Boone Logan, who was again acquired with Vazquez. Not that Logan is any good. He’s basically a left-handed Kyle Farnsworth, but minus the effective slider and all those pesky strikeouts. Logan has a mid-90s fastball that’s straight and thus very hittable, a curve he rarely uses, and an unimpressive slider. The less we see of Logan in 2010 and beyond the better this trade will look. Fortunately, Logan still has an option remaining and can be stashed at Scranton. As for Dunn, he was nothing special. Besides, when was the last time the Yankees were burned by trading a theoretically promising relief pitcher, particularly one in his mid-20s with alarming minor league walk rates?
The key to the trade will be the future path of Vizcaino, who was just rated as the Yankees’ top pitching prospect by my man Kevin Goldstein over at Baseball Prospectus. Here’s Goldstein’s scouting report:
Vizcaino’s combination of stuff and refinement is rarely found in a teenager. His clean arm action leads to effortless 92-94 mph fastballs that get up to 97 when he reaches back for a bit more, while his smooth mechanics allow him to harness his pitches and pound the strike zone. His power curveball already grades out as big-league average with the projection of becoming a true wipeout offering. . . . Vizcaino’s ceiling tops that of any pitcher in the system, by a significant margin. It will take time, but the skills are there for him to become an All-Star starter.
The trick is that Vizcaino won’t turn 20 until next November and has yet to pitch in a full-season league. I’m not saying he’s not going to fulfill his potential, but he’s so far away that he’s more of a dream than a reality right now. The odds seem just as good that the Yankees traded him at the peak of his value than that he will turn into the pitcher he’s projected to be. Still, there’s a legitimate risk that the Yankees just gave up a young home grown ace for a year of Javy Vazquez.
As for Melky, he made a nice comeback this year, but it only brought him back to the level of his rookie season, which was a strong effort by a 21-year-old rookie, but was underwhelming if not outright disappointing coming from a 24-year-old in his fourth full big league season. Cabrera is merely average in the field, doesn’t walk much, doesn’t hit for much power, and though he steals at a high percentage, he only swipes about ten bases a year. He’s out of options and into arbitration, and though I doubt anyone thinks he’s a future star, he’s still somewhat overrated. (I wonder, if Melky was named “Jose” and didn’t have the dimples, would anyone miss him?)
I might overrate Brett Gardner, but I honestly believe that a Yankee outfield with Gardner in center and Curtis Granderson in left is better than one with Granderson in center and Melky in left. Gardner is a superlative defensive center fielder and, given his superior on-base skills and base stealing prowess, is at least Melky’s equal on offense. He also hits lefties as well or better than he hits righties. With Granderson’s center-field ability in left and Gardner’s tremendous range in center, the Yankees would have two-thirds of a tremendous defensive outfield, which would suit Vazquez particularly well.
Of course, it’s widely believed that the Yankees will leave Granderson in center and sign a mid-priced left fielder to replace Cabrera, though given the available options (Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Jason Bay are brutal fielders), there’s no guarantee that doing so wouldn’t actually do more harm than good. Signing Mark DeRosa as a right-handed bench player capable of spelling Granderson against lefties, spelling Gardner by pushing Granderson to center, and spotting around the infield would be a good move provided he’s limited to that role, but while he’s a fine defensive outfielder, he’s a terrible infielder and could nonetheless likely land a starting job elsewhere. I still hold out some hope for Matt Holliday, but given the $11.5 million they’re now paying Vazquez for 2010 that seems less likely than ever.
The biggest decision prompted by this trade will be which pitcher out of Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain winds up with the fifth spot in the rotation and which winds up back in the bullpen. It sounds right now as though that will be a decision decided based on Spring Training performances, but it’s worth remembering that Chamberlain would be able to throw as many as 200 innings in the coming season, while Hughes would likely be limited to no more than 150. For all of the frustration that Chamberlain caused the Yankees in the rotation last year, he’s now closer to becoming the starter the Yankees hoped he could be than Hughes, who spent most of last year in the bullpen and needs to be stretched back out and to reintroduce the whole of his repertoire while facing a lineup multiple times. Remember that Chamberlain seemed to turn a corner coming out of the All-Star break last year only to have the Yankees’ clumsy efforts to enforce his innings limit derail him. Goldstein is among the prospect hounds who believe that Chamberlain has a higher ceiling than Hughes, though both still have front-of-the-rotation potential.
That last gets us to the most significant aspect of this entire deal. As much as the Vazquez trade seems like an easy win for the coming season, deepening the Yankee rotation and, in turn, the bullpen, and perhaps even improving their outfield at essentially no immediate cost, it’s frustrating to see Hughes and Chamberlain continue to be jerked around, particularly while the Red Sox are on the verge of having established both Jon Lester, now clearly their ace, and Clay Buchholz in their rotation. I understand why the Yankees, as defending champions, don’t want to devote 40 percent of their rotation to player development, and I understand why they might be gun shy after Hughes and Ian Kennedy’s failures in 2008 (Hughes’ problems that season were almost entirely due to injury, but that doesn’t make them any less likely to reoccur), but the organization needs to figure out how to develop its young starting pitching prospects or they might as well start making those Johan Santana trades when they come up. Maybe dealing Vizcaino is an indication that they’re headed back in that direction. If so, enjoy the winning while it lasts, because there will be more than just Javy Vazquez to remind us of 2004 in the coming decade.