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December 22, 2009

Transaction Analysis

The Vazquez Trade

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES
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Acquired RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan from the Braves for RHP Arodys Vizcaino, LHP Mike Dunn, and OF-S Melky Cabrera; signed C-R Mike Rivera to a minor-league contract. [12/22]

Let's be clear, the Yankees didn't just use money muscle to make this happen, because Vizcaino's no small thing to surrender. The rest of it was parts they could afford to put into play, because they didn't have any immediate use for them that exceeded their value as chits to convert into one year of Vazquez. Cabrera was fungible from the moment they traded for Curtis Granderson, regardless of whether or not they make Brett Gardner their starting left fielder or add another veteran for left, and regardless of whether or not they consummate the rumored deal for Nick Johnson. Instead, Cabrera's role on the 2010 Yankees was fourth outfielder-to-be, and that may well be his role in Atlanta, if he isn't re-packaged off by them. (Experienced young veteran or no, it's worth remembering that the Braves didn't all run out and get Casey Kotchman tattoos, after all.)

With the exchange of southpaws, Dunn's a noteworthy talent who may well shine in his new organization, but relief help's not that hard to find. Logan's a relatively better-known if inconsistent quantity, and if he fits into the third row of the club's rotating cast of thousands taking turns setting up Mariano Rivera, no harm done. If he doesn't, so what? For the Yankees, this deal isn't won or lost on who their fourth outfielder is, or who their second lefty in the pen is.

Instead, it's won or lost on the proposition that Vazquez has something like another 2009 in him. If he does, he's the power right-hander to line up behind CC Sabathia that A.J. Burnett isn't reliably going to be. If he isn't, he's a lot like Burnett, only more so, in that he's had worse seasons as well as higher highs. Was that worth chancing Vizcaino's upside? Of course it was. Could it turn out badly, as badly as Vazquez's previous summer in the Bronx back in 2004? Of course it could. But how many reliable starters are there on the market? Do you really want to revisit the Carl Pavanos or the Kei Igawas on the thought you're adding adequacy, and then wind up with even less? Instead, Cashman's playing for higher stakes, and betting that he gets the good Vazquez in his walk year instead of the one the White Sox got tired of, the guy who wears down early and gets hammered in the sixth inning while slogging through his rounds in the DH league. It's not a safe bet, but then neither is it certain that Vizcaino's going to be the next Pedro Martinez and make you look bad in short order.

So, which Vazquez will show up? That is the $11.5 million question, after all. He was complete murder on right-handers, which could come in handy against a Red Sox lineup beginning to lean right among its best players. And consistent with Cashman's acquisition plan last year, like Sabathia and Burnett, Vazquez is a power pitcher who will be less defense-dependent, not a bad thing at all on this club, especially if the infield defense gets worse with another bit of mileage on the treads of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano. Last year, Vazquez did an exceptional job of getting over the sixth-inning hump, holding hitters to .261/.333/.357; he didn't struggle after his 75th pitch either. That's great, but it was also in the National League, in a park that's probably friendlier than NuYankee, and certainly friendlier than the Cell. To dial the wayback machine to 2008 to reflect what the less-happy Vazquez might be like, his sixth innings as a White Sock were bloodbaths (.360/.380/.570), and his performances on pitches 76-100 equally gory (.325/.361/.550). Maybe he's dispelled those bogeymen. Maybe it was all mean old Ozzie Guillen, hurting his feelings, and a dose of Bronx charity will make all the difference. And maybe it's the difference between facing full lineups in the better league, because it pushes up when you're catching the batting order in-game the third time around, and because you don't get to see the pitchers and the Bonifacios in the AL East. It'll certainly be interesting to find out.

Finally, there's the team-relative element of this that makes it an automatic win. Joba Chamberlain should be locked into the fifth slot of the rotation, with Chad Gaudin and (cringe) Sergio Mitre representing fall-back options, instead of picking from among Gaudin, Mitre, and Phil Hughes to round out the rotation. If the Joba Rules dictate their best young pitcher's career is going to be frittered away to no purpose, hey, that's all a big secret, but if Chamberlain succeeds as the guy who is now that much more out of the limelight, consider it a potential benefit. They could also stand Chamberlain up in a direct competition with Hughes for the fifth slot, with loser becoming the primary set-up man in the pen, but in the end, anything that puts Gaudin back into a swing role as the designated sixth starter, long reliever, and mop-up man sounds like something that puts him in his proper place on a potential pennant-winner.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Signed LHP Mariano Gomez, C-S Orlando Mercado, OF-R Brent Clevlen, and UT-L Joe Thurston to minor-league contracts. [12/18]
Traded RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan to the Yankees for RHP Arodys Vizcaino, LHP Mike Dunn, and OF-S Melky Cabrera. [12/22]

So it's all about the money, or money management, or soul-less bean-counting. Really? I guess what I find silly is the proposition that the Braves are being cheap, and that somehow that's what's killing them. It's easy to say, but I guess I don't buy the logic, let alone the emotion.

For example, let's go back and look at what they did with the relief exchange. They elected to bring in Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito for at least $10.2 million before they had to deal with the Rafael Soriano imbroglio. You don't get Wagner and Saito and Soriano; they were operating with an either/or proposition, and they'd picked Wagner and Saito, making the mistake of thinking they'd get draft picks for Soriano. In retrospect, you can wish they'd have gone for Wagner and Soriano, and gone sans Saito, because we can pretend to know they'd have spent just $1.7-4 million more or so (Saito's incentives put the final bill in doubt for the next 11 months). Obviously, that wasn't the path they took, but that decision was made before Soriano accepted arbitration, which is why it's speculative to suggest they'd have gotten Soriano at the same price the Rays got him to agree to; maybe he does, and maybe Soriano goes to the hearing, and that probably costs you more than $7.25 or $7.5 million. Claiming to know doesn't make it so, and one of the easiest mistakes to make in the market is to overpay for relief pitching, even allowing for Soriano's performance while healthy.

Instead, I'd argue that what's in play here is less the question of expense as much as it is about preference. The Braves preferred to have Tim Hudson back over banking on Vazquez, signing him to a three-year deal after the year. Can you blame them? Consider the two pitcher's performance records via SNWP and SNLVAR, to give both a rate and a counting stat:


        Hudson       Vazquez
Year  SNWP/SNLVAR  SNWP/SNLVAR
2009  .519/1.0     .608/7.4
2008  .593/4.5     .493/3.3
2007  .600/7.9     .552/5.3
2006  .471/3.5     .488/2.7
2005  .563/5.3     .511/4.1
2004  .570/5.1     .497/3.2

I can't say the Braves made a mistake here. Age isn't a big factor, but Hudson is a year older. As we know, Hudson's 2009 was abbreviated by injury, and his 2006 isn't cause for joy, but he's supposed to be healthy, thus the three-year deal. The Braves didn't get to trade Vazquez for what he was in '09, any more than they can bank on what he was in '09 being what they'd get in 2010. Vazquez's recent swings from valuable to exasperating are a matter of record, with the recent peaks still separated by another one of his trenches, which doesn't help a proposition that selling high is going to yield maximum return. It's one year of a reliably unreliable starting pitcher, equally capable of greatness or making his manager a Maalox junkie. Not finding a rube willing to give you everything for Christmas because he thinks Vazquez is suddenly going to be reliable does not make you a badly run franchise, it instead reflects a smarter marketplace and a potentially more contrained range of possible actions.

Consider what else has been in play this winter. The Braves also wisely preferred to skip on all of those tasty rumors that put Jair Jurrjens somewhere else. They understandably couldn't find anyone excited about adding a back-end rotation starter like Kenshin Kawakami in December, when the market's awash in that sort. Nobody wanted to take on Derek Lowe's deal (which I guess was cheap of them to sign... or perhaps not so much). So you don't get Hudson and Vazquez, you have to pick, and the Braves had already, picking Hudson. We can backbite on why they spent to bring Kawakami over, but we can also kibitz on why they spent so much on Lowe (which was congratulated as a good idea a year ago, not unreasonably). We can fidget on why they spent on bringing Tom Glavine back, only to end up not employing him. And we can second-guess why they traded for Vazquez in the first place last winter, pretending to know that they were going to flip him a year later. I didn't, but I liked the deal for both parties then. In retrospect that trade's boiling down to Tyler Flowers and far-off Santos Rodriguez for two years of control of Vazquez, plus assorted party favors. At the time, concerns over Flowers' ability to remain at catcher and the happy having of Brian McCann made Flowers movable. Subsequently, the Sox have the benefit of Flowers' improved receiving—which was not a guaranteed result last year.

So Frank Wren moved the one year of Javier Vazquez he had at his disposal, and instead of magically answering all of his club's needs right now this instant in this one trade, they went for considerable upside value. Not with Cabrera, although having him under control for a couple of years and having him available to deal later for a team looking for a center fielder makes him a readily convertible placeholder. If Jordan Schafer doesn't pan out, the Melky man's a better alternative for the immediate future than, say, Gorkys Hernandez was going to be before they decided to win in '09 by trading Hernandez to the Pirates. Nor is Dunn critical, although his combination of mid-90s heat and a power slider makes him a lefty relief prospect worthy of the name, and someone who could step directly onto the big-league staff and join Eric O'Flaherty in providing quality work from the left side, setting up Wagner in a bullpen that seems to be filling up.

No, the real prize here is Vizcaino's upside, which basically short-circuits any neat totting up of benefits to issue any final pronouncements, because the Venezuelan's power assortment of a quality curve and reliable mid-90s heat has only been fired at New York-Penn League ballplayers. I'd just point you towards Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 Prospects list from earlier today, and suggest that this is someone worth having, someone worth waiting for, and certainly someone you can risk adding on the off chance that you just avoided Vazquez's next step along his recent Saberhagen-like polar career path.

Similarly, in the same way that we don't know what Vizcaino's going to turn into and can't write the obit of this exchange for perhaps another half-dozen years, as with any work in progress, I think it's silly to say somebody's being dumb or not spending enough, and try to use money alone for scorekeeping purposes. Maybe they're being cheap, and maybe not, and maybe we'll know better by February. I take it for granted that the Braves aren't done, and may get in on that corner outfield bat they need; whether that buys time for Jason Heyward to develop or keeps both Melky Cabrera on the bench, that's certainly worth doing. For the sake of argument, if they wind up with an outfield of Matt Holliday, Nate McLouth, and Heyward, does that mean they're smart again? Or not smart until Vizcaino blossoms? Or not smart until we see what Vazquez does in his latest veering swing through an inconsistent career?

Now, as a matter of preference, you can prefer Vazquez to giving Hudson a three-year deal. I think the performance records argue against it, but your mileage may vary. Similarly, you can argue for keeping Soriano at an arbitration-generated rate of compensation, but that wasn't the club's plan; they're banking on Wagner and Saito. There might be a pattern of saving some money on their balance sheet for 2010, but until we know if the Braves are done or not, we don't know if they're being cheap, or if they aren't just simply making a few tough choices. Talking about Soriano sort of misses the point, because he was gone as far as their plans were concerned; it took his action of accepting arbitration to re-add him to their menu, however briefly. We can pretend they might have kept Vizcaino, and... what, cut Kawakami? Send Tommy Hanson to Gwinnett? Hope for a better trade in February, when their other actions depend on getting this done now?

Until we see what else the Braves do, I say we see how things play out, and judge Wren's execution accordingly. Admittedly, I'm giving the Braves a pass until then, but even if nothing else does happen, I think we ought to be judging their elective decision-making in choosing Hudson for three years over Vazquez for one and picking Wagner and Saito as next year's first-rank relievers on more than just a payroll sheet.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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