December 5, 2003
The Vazquez-Johnson deal
We've inserted some content from the 2004 PECOTA Cards in this special edition of Transaction Analysis. All of the 2004 cards will be available to Premium subscribers by the end of January, 2004.
By now, we're used to the proposition that the Expos are a syndicate-operated franchise, where Omar Minaya and Tony Tavares are in the impossible situation of trying to run a team to suit the diktats of 29 angry men (or groups of angry men, with a few women for melting pot zest). As a result, their compelled, alien management decision tree leaves them forced to make deals that don't exactly conform to anyone's blinkered perceptions of what a near-contender ought to do. However, the transparency of the industry's chicanery generates deals that, while they aren't particularly happy in terms of reassuring whatever few fans buy Expos season tickets these days, also don't sink to the level of Arnold Johnson's operation of the Kansas City A's. The Expos may not have freedom of action, but they do have enough sense to get value. And to the continuing fury of at least some of the 29 co-conspirators perpetrating this charade, that means the Expos do better than some do even without the benefit of freedom.
So the Yankees, trapped in their pro wrestling götterdammerung plot line with the Red Sox, apparently have to go tit-for-tat in the wake of the Schilling deal. That's not to diminish what they've achieved. Schilling might be more famous, and he might own Vazquez on a wargaming table. He's also older, more fragile, and less likely to give his team 35 starts. In contrast, Vazquez is in his prime. At 27, he has endured and survived a heavy workload, and he's far removed from an age when heavy workloads are sources of really desperate concern (take a look at Mark Prior's workload if you want to be alarmed). It's especially intriguing to see that Nate Silver's latest PECOTA projections for him rank Vazquez as just about the most promising pitcher for value in the season to come.
There are plenty of 'hold your horses' responses you might have to that, but let's kick it around. Although he's coming over to the DH league, at least he won't have to deal with the insanity of pitching in Hiram Bithorn's Bananazoic Planet Coors. He'll have the disadvantage of pitching in front of one of baseball's worst defenses; the Yankees were ranked with the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Rangers for teams with no park-influenced excuses for the bottom-of-the-barrel Defensive Efficiency Rating. But he's a power pitcher who doesn't allow a lot of balls in play in the first place, and Mike Mussina came in and learned to adapt, overcome, and shrug off the mayhem in leather while looking forward to the half of the innings that he gets to sit and watch.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the Yankees needed this. With the Rocket shuffling off to his sojourn in the Presidential vacation state prior to his invitation to immortality, there aren't a lot of sure things left in the pinstriped rotation. Andy Pettitte and Jumbo Wells put in their time and have the right to leave the reservation (or accept arbitration, if offered), and Jose Contreras, Jon Lieber, and Jeff Weaver are unknown commodities. Arguably, acquiring Weaver was supposed to give them the young, front-half of a rotation starter they knew they'd need by now, but that hasn't worked out. So they didn't just need Vazquez, they desperately needed him. Now, they have only really acquired one year of him--and then the exclusive negotiating window, an arbitration decision, and all the other bells and whistles, ranging from a Moose-sized contract to a parting package of Rice-A-Roni, and all points in between. But they needed this, with or without the Schilling trade and its notional value as a source of inspiration.
From the Expos' side of the equation, this really isn't an awful deal or a mere salary dump. Starting in order of least importance, they can plug Randy Choate into the bullpen as a situational lefty, buy out Joey Eischen for $50,000 instead of picking up his $1.3 million option, and save themselves close to a million bucks. And beyond the savings, there's the question of performance. Joe Torre never took the time to really put Choate to good use, but he can be a solid situational lefty--something that can't be said of Eischen, who's got a nasty habit of plating other people's baserunners. He'll look good as a Cardinal, and he's old enough.
Then there's the question of Rivera. Yes, acquiring him might seem like a demoralizing bit of getting used to the idea of Vlad Guerrero in somebody else's uniform, but Rivera has his merits. As a hitter, while he hasn't done much in his brief big league trials, he's hit .325 at Triple-A over three seasons, slugging .512, and he's only 25. Afield, he's got good range and a strong arm, so he's a defensive asset as corner outfielders go. Will he be an offensive star? No, but he makes a nice plug-in for a sixth slot in the order, and he'll put runs on the board. Look beyond the playing time PECOTA projects for him, and you'll see a corner outfielder who can slug close to .500. That isn't something to write off as a mere throw-in.
Finally, there's Nick Johnson. We've touted Johnson for a very long time now, and we've seen that potential barely shine through a litany of worrying hand and wrist injuries. Nevertheless, he's only 25, and his precocious progress through the Yankees chain deserves to be remembered for the promise it hinted at. It's one of the reasons why the new PECOTA projections see him as the sort of player with tremendous breakout potential. Anybody who can reasonably project to hitting as well as Todd Helton without Coors Field getting an assist looks pretty valuable. There's irony that among his closest comps, you'll find a young Jason Giambi, but the blend of possibility and risk is perhaps best highlighted by the two most-comparable hitters: Darrell Evans (who went on to enjoy a career that deserves a lot more Hall of Fame consideration than he got) and Mike Epstein (whose fame endures for all sorts of reasons, some but unfortunately not all of them good).
There's a tangential point, or many, but the one I wonder about it is that, as much as I like Rivera and Johnson, neither really projects to have long, brilliant careers, starring deep into their 30s. So the Expos should get them at their best and cheapest, then get some tasty draft value (assuming that system doesn't change) or trade value, while letting the two of them become Diamondbacks or whatever it is a past-peak hitter is supposed to do in his golden years a few seasons from now. While Johnson's truly inexpensive years are gone, he's still not going to cost the Expos much over the life of his pre-free agency career. Add him to a lineup that already gets the benefits of Brad Wilkerson power-and-patience blend, not to mention an overdue Tatis ejection, and you've got some worthwhile offensive building blocks, with or without Vlad.