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Observations from Cooperstown: Vazquez, Left Fielders, and George Michael

Posted By Bruce Markusen On January 8, 2010 @ 8:18 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

Due to the vagaries of the holiday schedules, I’ve yet to comment publicly on the Yankees’ last major acquisition of the winter: the Javier Vazquez trade. So we’ll file this in the category of “better late than never.” On the one hand, I have to confess I’m not Vazquez’ biggest fan. His career has largely been a disappointment, based on the context of the ability he flashed as a young Montreal Expo seven or eight years ago. He’s had only two dominant seasons in his career—2003 and this past season—which isn’t sufficient for the kind of stuff he’s always had. He’s had a good career, no question, just not the kind of career that matches the talent of his right arm.

With that criticism out of the way, I cannot legitimately complain about the trade that brought him back to the Bronx. The Yankees simply did not give up that much to acquire a capable right-hander who would be a legitimate No. 2 starter on many staffs. Melky Cabrera is a serviceable ballplayer who will never be a star, Mike Dunn is a minor league pitching prospect who cannot start, and Arodys Vizcaino is a 19-year-old right-hander who has never pitched above the pitching-minded NY-Penn League. (As a frequent visitor to Oneonta and Utica, I’ve seen too many kid pitchers dominate this league before flaming out in tougher hitting environments.) Of the three, the only player that caused the Yankees any pain in surrendering was Vizcaino, but there is still so much distance—and so much uncertainty—between where he is now and his anticipated arrival in the major leagues.

For me, the key to the trade was acquiring Vazquez without having to surrender Nick Swisher, whose contract was probably too rich for Atlanta’s thinning bloodstream. Giving up Swisher in this deal would have been a mistake; his regular season power, his versatility, and his infusion of enthusiasm have been forgotten too quickly by too many media types who only want to dwell on the postseason or some ridiculous notion of staid and serious Yankee professionalism. Would the Yankees really have been comfortable opening the season with an outfield of Brett Gardner (left field), Curtis Granderson (center field), and Cabrera (right field)—and Rule 5 pickup Jamie Hoffmann in reserve? I wouldn’t.

Now that Vazquez is aboard, the Yankees have slotted him into the fourth spot in the rotation. He’s overqualified for that; he may be the best No. 4 starter in the game, better even than what the Red Sox can offer. He has piled up three consecutive seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, so he is a legitimate power arm, even in the tougher American League. He has logged 200 or more innings for five straight seasons, so durability is not a question. Given what the Yankees needed, and what they had to give up to get him, Vazquez will fit in as tidily as a Christmas tree does in the family living room…

Now that Yankee pitching depth has been addressed, that leaves only one major problem with the 25-man roster—and in a broader sense, the 40-man roster. The Yankees currently have only four outfielders on their wintertime roster, a list that includes Hoffmann, an unproven Rule 5 draftee. There is simply no way the Yankees can expect to go an entire season with four outfielders, especially with virtually no one in waiting at Triple-A who is considered major league caliber. Now we can all debate whether the Yankees can live with Gardner as an everyday outfielder, or whether they need to add a legitimate starting left fielder, but at the very least, someone will have to be brought in to provide a level of depth.

With Austin Kearns having signed with the Indians, there are six interesting candidates left on the free agent market: former Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson, ex-Red and ex-Ray Jonny Gomes, ex-Tiger (and ex-Yankee) Marcus Thames, former Cardinal Rick Ankiel, a fellow named Xavier Nady and, of course, Johnny Damon. From a baseball and sentimental perspective, Damon makes the most sense, but budgetary constraints and large egos may prevent that from ever happening. If that’s the case, I’ll place my allegiance with Ankiel, despite the fact that he’s a left-handed hitting outfielder, like Gardner and Granderson. Ankiel is only one season removed from his best year as a Cardinal, has enough speed to pay left field at the Stadium, and has the kind of throwing arm that would make Downtown Ollie Brown take notice. Ankiel lost his center field job in St. Louis not because of incompetence, but due to the twin circumstances of injury and Colby Rasmus’ emergence. At the age of 30, Ankiel has plenty of power and talent left in the tank—and would be a far more productive left fielder than Brett Gardner.

After Ankiel, the 29-year-old Gomes has the highest upside—let’s call him a very poor man’s Jason Bay—but he’s a also subpar corner outfielder whose lack of maturity has to concern the Yankees. Additionally, he might not accept a platoon role in either left field or at DH. Thames is intriguing, partly because he’s an original Yankee and partly because he’s slugged .516 for his career against left-handed pitching. On the downside, he’ll be 33 in March and can’t play center field. Nady is similarly intriguing, but like Thames and Gomes, he can’t play center field, and I have to wonder about the condition of his throwing arm after major elbow surgery. Then there’s Johnson, also 33, who doesn’t have enough pop to play every day, but might be the best fit for the Yankee roster. Johnson has a history of hammering left-handed pitching (allowing him to platoon with Gardner), has the speed and defensive skills to cover all three outfield positions, and won’t buck at a part-time playing role.

If I had my druthers, I’d love nothing more than to see Damon back in the Bronx, but I could live with any of the other three, particularly Ankiel or Johnson…

I was both saddened and stunned on Christmas Eve, when I learned of the death of former “Sports Machine” creator and host George Michael, who had quietly battled leukemia. About a decade ago, George visited Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, as he hosted his Sunday night Sports Machine program from one of the Hall’s galleries. I was amazed at the smoothness and precision of George’s delivery; I can’t remember him flubbing a single word despite the constant flow of instructions coming from the truck and his directors, along with the general chaos that infiltrates the set of a live television show. Not once did George lose his temper or his cool. He remained the consummate professional throughout the program, both on camera and off.

George befriended several of us in the Hall of Fame Library during his visit, including myself and coworkers Scot Mondore and John Horne. We learned that George was more than just a general sports fan with a superficial affinity for highlights. He had an intense interest in baseball research, specifically in the area of identifying ballplayers on old photographs. He once presented on the subject at a SABR Convention, where he was known to seek out the help of other experts in solving some of those photographic mysteries.

While George was in Cooperstown, both to do research and film his show, he took a special interest in the jobs that Scot, John and I performed at the Hall, along with our career aspirations. He treated us as if we were the celebrities, not the other way around.

George Michael, who passed away at the age of 70, will always be missed here in Cooperstown, and especially by the three of us.


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