Commentary

Vazquez ready to put 2004 to bed

Updated: April 1, 2010, 11:49 PM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

Javier VazquezAP Photo/Brian BlancoYankees No. 4 starter Javier Vazquez says he's matured since his last stint in the Bronx.

This time around, Javier Vazquez is not being asked to make the legend of Roger Clemens vanish. Heck, he is barely being asked to replace anyone.

This past fall, the Yankees acted as if they would have preferred to find a No. 4 starter on Craigslist than dare use Chad Gaudin.

Still, six years after Vazquez was the one who disappeared in the second half, don't think there aren't expectations.

"Putting him in that 4-slot you can't really put into words how much better that makes us," Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland says. "He is a workhorse. He's going to give us 200 innings and hopefully about 15 wins."

[+] EnlargeJavier Vazquez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJohnny Damon's grand slam in the 2004 ALCS earned Vazquez more than a few Bronx cheers.

Vazquez, now 33, is a better pitcher than he was in 2004 and arrives in what seems to be a historically unique situation. Last year, Vazquez finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. This season, he begins as his team's fourth starter. (The Elias Sports Bureau doesn't track such irregularities, but it seems unfathomable that this has happened before.)

In 2004, the Yankees asked Vazquez to replace the club's aces, Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Clemens had just retired for the first time, while Pettitte signed with Houston. "That's a lot of pressure," Yankees GM Brian Cashman says.

This year, he is being asked to replace -- well, um, the Yankees didn't really have a fourth starter. After Chien-Ming Wang failed and hobbled to the disabled list, Gaudin and Joba Chamberlain were sort of in that role, but neither pitched well enough to be in this season's rotation.

In 2004, Vazquez made the All-Star team, but he fell apart in the second half and gave up the grand slam to Johnny Damon in Game 7 of the ALCS that finished off the Yankees against the Red Sox. He essentially collapsed along with the team, raising questions about whether he could make it here.

"His makeup was a little bit of a question when he was younger," says an NL executive of a team that has looked into trading for Vazquez in the past. "He is a different pitcher now. Last year you saw that."

In Atlanta last season, Vazquez went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA in 219 1/3 innings. With budget concerns in mind, the Braves dealt Vazquez and Boone Logan to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera, two minor leaguers and $500,000.

Braves GM Frank Wren says Vazquez is a better pitcher now than in 2004 because he is more willing to throw the change to left-handed hitters. "He has become a full-fledged four-pitch pitcher," Wren says.

For Cashman, Vazquez provides something that could be invaluable as the Yankees move toward October: He eats up innings.

Cashman knows that his top three starters (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Pettitte) all pitched more than 220 innings last season, so Vazquez will act as an extended warranty on the Big Three's mileage. "Sometimes durability and reliability aren't the sexiest attributes, but they are very valuable," Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes says. "He is extremely durable and reliable."

In the past 10 years, the only regular season in which Vazquez didn't reach 200 innings was 2004 with the Yankees. He finished with 198 but threw a few infamous innings in the playoffs to get over 200.

Vazquez hasn't erased 2004 from his mind, but he is not interested in replaying it on a continuous reel. He is hesitant to go into every finite detail of what happened in the second half when he went 4-5 with an ERA a little less than 7 and got rocked in his one postseason start in the ALDS before giving up the slam to Damon in the ALCS. He does say he is different.

"I'm more mature," Vazquez said. "I can't say it will help me pitch, because maturity doesn't help you pitch."

What helps Vazquez pitch is he misses bats. He is a strikeout machine. In five of the past 10 years, Vazquez has struck out at least 200 batters, including 238 last year. In the past decade, his worst strikeout season came in -- you guessed it -- 2004, when he struck out 150. Last year, his 238 strikeouts were the second-best in baseball.

Vazquez will be a free agent at the end of this season, so he is pitching for not only redemption but also a new contract. Both the guy who traded him and the guy who traded for him think he can handle it.

"It is a somewhat overused term, but he is a true professional," Wren says.

And Cashman, without prodding, says, "He's a pro."

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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