The Yankees made it clear when the off-season began that they planned to sign a starting pitcher. In 2009 they dealt with a constantly fluctuating fifth starter spot, plus Joba Chamberlain‘s growing pains. The team understandably wanted to solidify that rotation rather than placing both Chamberlain and Phil Hughes in the rotation, especially after the former pitched more innings than previously in his career, and the latter faces an innings limit in 2010. As we moved through the off-season’s beginning stages, most of us thought that the Yankees would sign Justin Duchscherer or Ben Sheets. Instead they traded for Javier Vazquez.
At the time I argued it was a good move. Vazquez has been a solid pitcher in most seasons of his career, mixing average seasons with excellent seasons. At worst he’s the best fourth starter in the league, and probably a mid-range third starter. At best he complements A.J. Burnett as a No. 2. That sounds like an acceptable range of outcomes. The price was right on Vazquez, too. In addition to his $12 million salary, the Yankees traded the exact type of player they should in this case. Melky Cabrera, while a solid contributor last season, has shown himself a league average player during his Yankees tenure. Arodys Vizcaino is a young prospect a few years away from the majors. Mike Dunn was a throw-in, offset in a way by Boone Logan.
In Vazquez, the Yankees not only received a potentially excellent starter, but also a durable one. Only once in the last decade did Javy miss the 200-inning mark, and even then he hit 198 innings. That, I think, represents a large part of the decision to trade for Vazquez rather than sign one of the free agent starters. Both Sheets and Duchscherer are coming off injuries which kept them out of action in 2009. Perhaps the year off rejuvenated them, but that’s still a hefty bet. Maybe Sheets pitches 170 innings in 2010. But is that a bet that, as a GM, you’d be willing to make?
Now we see where Sheets and Duchscherer have landed. Duchscherer signed a one-year, $2 million deal that can pay him up to $5.5 million with incentives. That seems like a steal, and perhaps the A’s did get a familiarity discount. The Yankees could have easily made that move, but Duch has never crossed the 150-inning mark in his life. The price might have been low, but the Yankees had no way of expecting the kind of production they wanted from a rotation signing. It was a nice thought — Duchscherer did, after all, dominate in his first full season as a starter, allowing under one walk plus hit per inning pitched. But with the history of low inning totals and a completely missed 2009 campaign, the Yankees wanted something of a better bet.
Sheets got $10 million plus incentives, not quite the $12 million he sought but closer than I thought he’d get. The Yankees reportedly like Sheets, but in this case I can see why they weren’t willing to wait him out. It was pretty clear at the winter meetings that Sheets wasn’t signing any time soon, and the Yankees wanted to get their situation in order. They couldn’t know what kind of contract Sheets would eventually command, but it figured to be substantial. The Yankees apparently deemed him not worth the wait. It wasn’t because of ability — at his best, Sheets is a better pitcher than Vazquez. Durability certainly played a role in the decision to trade for Vazquez rather than wait out Sheets.
I know a number of fans did not like the Vazquez trade, and I doubt anything will convince them that it was the right move. But upon seeing how the free agent pitching market played out, I have a hard time arguing against it. The Yankees traded the type of players they can afford to part ways with for a pitcher who fits their mold — durable, possibly dominant, whereas Sheets is dominant, possibly durable. When considering all other possible options and outcomes for that open rotation spot, the Yankees did well for themselves.