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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 15, Javier Vazquez

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 15, pitcher Javier Vazquez.

Here's a conversation that took place more than once this off-season around the New York offices:

Will: I think the Yankees have made some good moves so far.
Joe: I agree, though I'm not sure about Javier Vazquez.
Will: [Rolls his eyes and says something about Joe being irrational on the subject of Vazquez, which is completely true.]

The hesitation with Javier Vazquez, of course, has little to do with what he's done between stints in New York. Last season, he won fifteen games and struck out 238 batters, with a 2.87 ERA and a 1.026 WHIP. Granted, that was in the National League, but he spent three years with the White Sox, too, and his 2007 campaign, at least, wasn't bad at all. If the Yankees signed an unnamed Pitcher X with these numbers to be their fourth starter, no one would bat an eye.

But Vazquez is not Pitcher X. He was a living, breathing member of the 2004 ACLS team and happened to be the guy to throw the pitch to Johnny Damon that for all intents and purposes ended the Curse once and for all. But to say Vazquez had a bad 2004 is only half true. He made the All-Star team, albeit as a Joe Torre–selected replacement, but his numbers fell after the break. His ERA ballooned from 3.56 to 4.91, and he'd win just four more games.

It didn't help Vazquez that, last time around, he was expected to be a front-of-the-rotation starter for years to come. That, obviously, didn't happen: Come Game 7 of the ALCS, the most important game in the history of important games, Vazquez was passed over for Kevin freaking Brown. Now, further along in his career, he's had good years and bad years and mediocre years, like plenty of veteran fourth starters. Expectations are far lower now, despite the fact that he was another team's ace just last year. We've talked ourselves into Vazquez this off-season (he was fourth in Cy Young voting last year!) as many times as we've talked ourselves out of Vazquez (he can't pitch in New York!). We imagine, barring an extremely good or bad 2010, many fans will have a similarly complicated relationship with him this year. But who ever said fandom was a rational thing anyway?

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Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images