Javier Vazquez’s Comeback and Potential Suitors

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Javier Vazquez surprisingly retired after a solid season for the Marlins in 2011 in which he posted a 13-11 record; a 3.69 ERA; a hits/innings pitched ratio of 178/192 with 50 walks and 178 strikeouts. It must be added that he also had a dreadful start, pitching terribly until mid-June. For the entire second half, he was a different pitcher, one who was in demand as a free agent and chose to “retire” at age 35.

He can still pitch, just not as a Yankee, having failed there twice. I certainly wouldn’t bring him back to the Yankees, nor to Boston or Baltimore, but every other contending or would-be contending club is an option and Vazquez, while not saying he’s definitely returning, will pitch in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico and has said he’s considering a comeback to MLB. For a $10 million payday, why not?

So which teams could use Vazquez and meet the criteria as contender?

Let’s take a look.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays don’t really need another starter, but I suppose they could trade Ricky Romero and attach Adam Lind to him to get Lind’s contract off the roster in exchange for a 1B/DH bat and install Vazquez into the spot, but I’d keep Vazquez away from the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays

Vazquez isn’t coming back for an incentive-laden deal with a low base salary, which is essentially the only method in which the Rays invest in free agents as they did with Roberto Hernandez (née Fausto Carmona). Tampa would be a good spot in every aspect, but they can’t pay him.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians agreed to terms with Brett Myers yesterday and are using him as a starter. They’re clearly intent on trying to win within their means under new manager Terry Francona and Vazquez would fall into the veteran starting pitcher template. Francona’s gentle handling of his players would suit Vazquez.

Los Angeles Angels

Vazquez is better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas, but again, teams didn’t know Vazquez was available. The Angels don’t have any room for him now.

Texas Rangers

His penchant for allowing home runs is a concern in Texas, but their infield defense would also help him greatly. They’re a contender, would prefer a pitcher on a short-term contract and have had success with pitchers like Colby Lewis who’ve left for Japan and came back to MLB making Vazquez’s departure and return a non-issue.

The Rangers are a definite possibility.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals are waiting out Adam LaRoche and his free agency tour. In a free agency family tree sort of situation, LaRoche might go to the Red Sox if their contract snag with Mike Napoli isn’t ironed out and the deal comes undone. If that’s the case, the Nats won’t be able to trade Mike Morse. If they can trade Morse, they can move him for a starting pitcher. Or they can sign Vazquez and worry about the other stuff later.

Vazquez spent the first six years of his career with the Nats organization when they were in Montreal. He’s a perfect fit back in the NL East where he had his best years and pitching for a legitimate World Series contender in Washington.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves have enough starting pitching, so much so that they traded Hanson to the Angels for Jordan Walden. But Brandon Beachy is returning from Tommy John surgery and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are kids, so there’s a spot for a veteran like Vazquez if they want him. Vazquez had the year of his life with the Braves in 2009, won 15 games (he should have won 22) and finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting. It’s doubtful they’d do it, but it’s logical.

Philadelphia Phillies

Vazquez is better than John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick—the two pitchers at the back of the Phillies rotation and gigantic steps down from the top three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—but the home run ball would be an issue for Vazquez and the Phillies offense and defense aren’t what they once were to account for Vazquez’s faults. He’d surrender a ton of homers in Philadelphia. He’s probably ill-suited mentally to the fans of Philadelphia booing him if he pitches 6 no-hit innings and then gives up a run in the seventh with the team leading 10-1.

Milwaukee Brewers

They desperately need starting pitching and have money to spend, but I’m not sure they’re contenders even though they can hit.

Pittsburgh Pirates

They just spent a large portion of available funds on Francisco Liriano. But they might be able to swing Vazquez. They’re intriguing for Vazquez and vice versa. The Pirates are a NL Central club with a big ballpark and enough young talent to be taken seriously as a contender, so perhaps they can work something out with Vazquez if they clear some money elsewhere.

San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have a ton of money to toss around nor status as a winter contender, but they could surprise in 2013 with their onrushing young talent. They also brought the fences in and lowered the walls at Petco Park, which would affect a homer-prone pitcher like Vazquez.

They could jump in on him in a surprise move.

Vazquez didn’t plan this very well if he wanted to start a bidding war. He realistically could’ve guaranteed himself $12 million if he’d made his services available at the conclusion of the 2012 season and seen the bidding go up with a 1-year deal plus an option with the requisite buyout. He could’ve made $15 million if he’d played it right.

All things considered, Vazquez and the Nationals are destined to wind up together. That’s if he decides to pitch; and if the Nats don’t trade Morse; and Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn’t try to prove himself “right” by going after Vazquez again for the Yankees.

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Why The Nats Were Stupid With Strasburg

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The same variances in human beings that allow a pitcher like Stephen Strasburg to throw 100-mph logically dictate that he is different from another pitcher who achieves his results in another manner. So much goes into throwing a baseball and determining velocity, control and movement that it’s absurd to come up with a baseline that applies to every pitcher and expect it to work.

Arm speed, flexibility, leverage, mechanics, timing, hand size and other factors are relevant when determining how a pitcher does what he does. Would it make sense to compare Strasburg, a tall righty with an effortless motion, with Tim Lincecum? Lincecum is listed at 5’11” but is probably closer to 5’9”; he has a violent, all-out motion. How do you look at both pitchers and say that they should be smashed into the same category when they’re unique individuals?

Without getting into the randomness of innings limits and pitch counts when adhering to an all-encompassing set of rules for every pitcher, I have a question: If the Nationals were so intent on limiting Strasburg’s inning to 160 this season, why didn’t they do something to make sure he wasn’t going to surpass that number without being forced to sit him down for extended periods in August and September?

Why didn’t they use a 6-man rotation?

Years ago the 4-man rotation was what every team used. Then teams slowly began incorporating a fifth starter amid the perception that pitchers were being “babied”. The 5-man became the norm. Then managers like Tony LaRussa began delegating responsibilities to certain relievers for specific situations. That was copied and eventually twisted with LaRussa being blamed for managers who couldn’t think for themselves becoming brainless automatons whose decisions were based on not being criticized for doing something against current convention than for making a team-oriented move to win without caring about perception or having a robotic answer when they’re second guessed.

The 5-man rotation and bullpen-based strategies have been in practice since the late-1980s. Since some teams are now obsessed with pitch counts and innings limits, why are they sticking to what is now an antiquated strategy in the amount of times their pitchers are sent to the mound?

A 5-man rotation averages 32.4 starts each per season. A 6-man rotation would average 27 starts per season. Strasburg has thrown 99 innings this season in 17 starts. That’s an average of 5.8 innings per start. If he had the reins taken off—within reason—and was allowed to make 32 starts, that would come to 186 innings. In 27 starts, that would come to 156 innings. That’s exactly where they want him to be without counting the post-season. A post-season which the Nats are well on their way to participating in and will need Strasburg if they want to have a chance at a championship.

Presumably veterans Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez wouldn’t have been happy about the extra rest between starts, but perhaps making this strategic change would allow them to increase the volume of pitches they’re allowed to throw per start to something commensurate with the extra rest. If Jackson is limited to, say, 115 pitches in the 5-man rotation, why not raise it to 130 in the 6-man and not have to use the bullpen so much?

What makes this worse is that the Nationals weren’t going to be digging for bodies to fill out the sixth position in the rotation. They have veteran lefty John Lannan toiling in the minors, earning $5 million and wanting to be traded. They’re not a club that was short on starting pitching and they had the personnel to do it.

Now they’re in a box. Everyone knows the innings limits and pitch counts attached to Strasburg and the Nats are stuck to giving him extra rest between starts or shutting him down completely to prevent him from surpassing his limit. This is not the way for him to keep his rhythm, maintain his command and stay sharp, but it’s where they are. It could’ve been avoided if they were smart. But they weren’t. Now they have to figure something else out because they didn’t do the obvious thing and use six starters instead of five.

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Somebody Wants You…Somewhere

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Let’s have a look at some players who have worn out their welcomes with their current organizations but could have some use for another club in the second half and possibly beyond.

Adam Lind, 1B—Toronto Blue Jays

Lind was recently recalled from the minors and is 8 for 23 since with 3 homers. 2 of the homers came in one game. He’s guaranteed $7 million so if the Blue Jays are going to get anything for him they’ll either have to eat most of the contract or take back another club’s problem player. He murdered the ball in Triple A after his demotion (.392/.448/.664 in 143 plate appearances with 8 homers); he’ll be 29 on July 17th; maybe he’s a change-of-scenery guy who’ll hit in another uniform.

Brian Matusz, LHP—Baltimore Orioles

His first-glance numbers are dreadful, but he’s a flyball pitcher who does the bulk of his pitching the AL East with the bandboxes of Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. Then he has the Blue Jays who swing for the fences in every at bat. Consequentially he gives up a lot of home runs. He walks too many, strikes out too few and has luck reminiscent of someone who’s gotten struck by lightning multiple times. His BAbip last season was .384; this year it’s .335. If he lobbed the ball over the plate he wouldn’t do much worse.

A team with a big park—the Twins, Padres, Dodgers—might want to take a look at Matusz and see if does any better with them.

Kurt Suzuki, C—Oakland Athletics

Time to give some credit to Billy Beane and Bob Melvin for keeping this team competitive and more. Beane ended up swindling the Red Sox by getting Josh Reddick and received a chunk of the farm systems of both the Diamondbacks and Nationals for Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez.

One of the prospects he got from the Nats, catcher Derek Norris, has already helped the A’s win a few games with his bat and glove. That makes the erstwhile everyday catcher Suzuki expendable. He’s due $6.45 million next season and while he hasn’t hit a home run this season, he’s got 15 homer power. He’s have a good year defensively throwing out 37% of the baserunners who’ve tried to steal.

Suzuki’s the type of player who’ll go to a new venue, start hitting and the media and fans will wonder why the A’s got rid of him.

John Lannan, LHP—Washington Nationals

Here’s a case study in burying a useful arm.

The Nats don’t need Lannan, but are paying him $5 million to pitch in Triple A and he’s pitching well. They don’t want to give him away, but they have no place for him on their big league roster. One would think that eventually a team desperate for pitching like the Blue Jays or Royals would give up something the Nats would want for Lannan.

The Blue Jays had Jamie Moyer pitching at Triple A! That’s how desperate they are after all their injuries. (They just released him.)

Gaby Sanchez, 1B—Miami Marlins

Sanchez had almost identical numbers in 2010-2011 with 19 homers and similar slash lines. He was so dreadful this season that he was sent down to Triple A in May, was recalled and still hasn’t hit. When the Marlins acquired Carlos Lee, Sanchez was sent back to the minors where he’ll stay unless he’s traded.

Sanchez is the type of player the Twins should take a chance on.

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2012 National League East Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Atlanta Braves 93 69
2. Philadelphia Phillies* 89 73 4
3. Washington Nationals* 88 74 5
4. Miami Marlins 83 79 10
5. New York Mets 69 93 24

*Denotes predicted Wild Card winner.

Atlanta Braves

There’s a misplaced belief that the team that made the most drastic and biggest moves in the off-season is automatically the “best” team.

Because the Braves did nothing to add to the roster that collapsed out of a playoff spot, they’re virtually ignored as a legit contender.

There was addition by subtraction by getting rid of Derek Lowe; they made significant improvements in-season by acquiring Michael Bourn. They’re going to be helped by the gained experience of young players Freddie Freeman, Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor; the return to form from Martin Prado; a healthy “I wanna get paid” year from Brian McCann; a better start and more consistency from Dan Uggla; and, most importantly, a healthy and “he has to be better because he can’t be worse” year from Jason Heyward.

Philadelphia Phillies

Chase Utley is hoping to play in spring training games within this week. Obviously his knee tendinitis will forever be an issue, but a great player like Utley doesn’t need the 6 weeks of spring training to be ready. Inside baseball people would never admit this for financial reasons, but spring training is far too long as it is. Pitchers need maybe 3 ½ weeks to be ready to start the season; hitters far less.

The Phillies are old; there are injury questions hovering around Roy Halladay (as much as people think he’s a machine, he’s not a machine.); their lineup is pockmarked and questionable; but with their starting rotation and bullpen addition of Jonathan Papelbon, they’ve got enough left for at least one more run.

Washington Nationals

They’re the next hot thing for many reasons.

They have a load of top-tier draft picks ready to make the move into big league notoriety; they’ve accumulated starting pitching; they have a devastating back-end of the bullpen; a lineup that can mash; and a veteran manager who has a history of winning.

They’re going to look back on Chien-Ming Wang’s injury and that they couldn’t follow through on a rumored trade of the severely underrated John Lannan and breathe a sigh of relief; the concept of bringing Bryce Harper to the big leagues at 19 needs to be considered carefully and he should not play center field; Gio Gonzalez is not the guarantee the bounty of prospects and expensive, unnecessary contract he received would indicate; and Stephen Strasburg can’t be considered an “ace” as long as he’s on a pitch/innings limit that Davey Johnson would undoubtedly love to toss into a nearby garbage can.

But they’re very talented and a viable contender.

Miami Marlins

Never mind the ownership, the new ballpark and the investigations swirling around the way said ballpark was approved and paid for. Forget about the monstrosity that will be on display whenever a Marlins’ player hits a home run and is sure to cause seizures among a large segment of unsuspecting fans. (See below.)

Cold, clinical analysis will tell you that this team is either going to be a major success or a testament to rubbernecking to see how quickly the clubhouse, manager’s office and front office degenerates into organizational cannibalism, whisper campaigns and a media feeding frenzy.

This is a powder keg. I don’t like powder kegs.

Ozzie Guillen’s teams with the White Sox consistently underachieved; Jose Reyes’s health is a question; Hanley Ramirez did not want to move to third base and is going to eventually pout about his contract; their defense is awful.

With a good pitching staff and all these questions, they could be good. With all the other issues, they could explode. Fast.

New York Mets

Yes. I’m a Mets fan.

Question my analysis, but don’t question my integrity.

Here are the facts: they’re in an impossible division; they’re short on starting pitching; they didn’t improve the club in the winter; the franchise is engulfed by the lawsuit against the Wilpons stemming from the Bernie Madoff mess; and they’re rebuilding.

They’re not good and they’re starting over with young players.

We won’t know much about the future of the Sandy Alderson-led baseball operations or what they’re going to do with players like David Wright until the trial is completed. They might be sold; the Wilpons might maintain ownership; the team might be slightly better than most projections depending on multiple factors.

It is what it is.

Accept it.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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The Nationals Need a Pitcher More Than a (Prince) Fielder

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Any team can use a bat that will hit 30-40 homers and get on base 40% of the time, but when that bat is attached to a body of jiggly flesh that’s going to grow larger and more jiggly as time passes; when the team doesn’t have the DH available to stash said player to account for his defensive deficiencies that are going to grow worse as he grows older (and larger); when the player is represented by an agent whose demands are starting at 10-years; and when the team has holes on the mound bigger than in their lineup, it makes little sense to spend the vast amount of money it’s going to cost to sign that player.

The Nationals have the money to sign Prince Fielder; they can certainly use his power; their ownership is very wealthy; and the team is on the cusp of legitimate contention, if not already there. But do they need him?

Their offense finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, but that’s misleading. Jayson Werth was awful in 2011 and will absolutely be better in 2012—in fact, I think he’ll have a very good year. Ryan Zimmerman missed a chunk of the season with an abdominal injury. They’re replacing offensive hindrances with occasional power, Rick Ankiel and Laynce Nix, in the regular lineup.

If Adam LaRoche returns and hits his 20 homers, they’ll score enough to win if their pitching performs; the rotation as currently constructed is good enough to loiter around contention; the bullpen is shutdown with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shortening the game. But they need another starting pitcher who can be trusted to take the ball every fifth day and give them a designated number of innings. Mark Buehrle would’ve been perfect, but he signed with the Marlins.

The Nationals will eventually start to win as a matter of circumstance even as the front office does baffling things like trading a package for Gio Gonzalez that would’ve been suitable for a far better pitcher like Matt Garza; signing a good background player like Werth to a contract befitting a star; or seriously considering meeting agent Scott Boras’s* demands for Fielder.

*Do people realize that Boras was a minor league player before becoming an agent of evil? Click on his name above; he was actually a good hitter.

As much as the Nationals are playing up their starting rotation with the addition of Gonzalez, they don’t have a horse at the front. Stephen Strasburg is an ace talent, but your number one starter cannot be on an innings/pitch count—he’s not going to give them 200 innings next season. John Lannan is a good pitcher, but he’s not an every fifth day, “put the team on his back” guy either. No one can predict what Chien-Ming Wang is going to do. Jordan Zimmerman is in the same position as Strasburg.

The Nationals have talked about moving Werth to center field until next winter when B.J. Upton—in whom they’ve long had interest—will be available; Werth can play center field serviceably enough, but the smart thing for them to do would be to steer clear of Fielder; sign a pitcher who will give them 200 innings like Edwin Jackson; sign Cody Ross as a left field stopgap; and install Michael Morse in right.

Also, Bryce Harper is going to get a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training. The Nats have to be careful with Harper and manager Davey Johnson must learn from the mistakes he made with a similarly hyped prospect and immature personality, Gregg Jefferies. Johnson coddled Jefferies and enabled the diva-like behaviors exhibited by the then 19-year-old; when he stopped hitting and his self-centeredness drew the ire of the Mets veterans, Johnson continued writing his name in the lineup creating a fissure between himself and the players with whom he’d cultivated a relationship from their formative years.

He cannot do that again.

If Harper is in the big leagues and Werth or Zimmerman feel the need to dispense old-school clubhouse discipline on the mouthy youngster, Johnson has to stay out of it; and if Harper isn’t hitting, he shouldn’t play simply because his name is Bryce Harper.

The one free agent bat at a key position they could’ve used was Jose Reyes; like Buehrle, he signed with the Marlins. Now the big offensive name remaining on the market is Fielder. But having a lineup inhabited by two players who are going to be contractually locked in for the next eight years limits flexibility and will result in diminishing returns quickly. If the Nationals have a budget, it will hamstring them financially as well.

They don’t need Fielder.

Signing him would be spending just for the sake of it and not help them achieve their goals any faster than they are now.

They’d be allowing Boras to play them just as they did last winter with Werth and it’s a mistake.

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Strasburg’s 2012 Innings Limit

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I’m not sure how a team that has designs on contention can regulate the innings of the pitcher upon whom the hopes of the franchise are resting, but that’s what the Nationals intend to do with Stephen Strasburg in 2012.

In this ESPN Story, GM Mike Rizzo doesn’t give an exact number for Strasburg, but you can presume it’s somewhere in the 160-175 range.

That number of innings are fine…for your fourth starter; but what are the Nats going to do for the top three slots in their rotation?

They’re said to be ready to spend some money and be aggressive; the name C.J. Wilson has been mentioned; it’s doubtful they’ll want to ante up the cash to get CC Sabathia if (when) he opts out of his Yankees contract, but it was the Nats who gave Jayson Werth $126 million, so you can never say never.

Jordan Zimmerman isn’t going to be ready to give them 200 innings; John Lannan can and is a nice pitcher, but is certainly not an ace. Can they expect 200 innings from Chien-Ming Wang? Doubtful.

What you’ll have, again, is a team that relies heavily on its bullpen; so heavily that the bullpen might be exhausted as it’s been over the past few years with the reliever-abusive Jim Riggleman running the club; Davey Johnson is more judicious in his handling of pitchers, but if Johnson comes back, I’m curious to see how he handles the Strasburg innings-limit situation.

When he was the Mets manager and Dwight Gooden was a 20-year-old phenom and ace and was in the middle of a historic 1985 season, the club was in a desperate run to make the playoffs; GM Frank Cashen went to Johnson and told him basically, “the kid’s going to pitch nearly 300 innings this year and it’s too much; do something”. Johnson, who never met a GM he couldn’t annoy with his sarcasm and ginormous ego responded by basically saying, “what do you want me to do?” and following up with, “how about you give me a computer printout of how many innings and pitches he’ll be allowed to throw; then by the time he reaches the limit, I can go out to the mound holding the printout, show it to him and pull him?”

Johnson’s mellowed since then and he’s more agreeable to the limits predicated on young pitchers by the front office. Gooden’s situation was 25 years ago. But Johnson still thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and many times, he’s right.

So Strasburg will be limited in what he’s allowed to do next season; but I’m curious if the Nats are in contention in September and Johnson’s managing the team, will he toss those limits out the window to try and win? Or will those parameters be ironclad and adhered to at the expense of a possible playoff spot?

It’s then that we’ll see if Johnson still has his insubordinate managerial fastball and ignores the front office trying to win.

It wouldn’t be the first time. But it might be the last.

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