It’s not uncommon in baseball for certain players to have careers ranging from solid to illustrious, yet be remembered in vastly different ways by certain fan bases because of their brief lapse at ball club.
There are cases where it’s not even about what the player did or didn’t do, but how they got there. Take James Shields and the White Sox, for example. He will be remembered as the guy who cost her Fernando Tatis Jr., rather than “Big Game” James, who threw the Rays and Royals to pennants in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
The Yankees have an odd relationship with a certain pitcher. This starter had a very successful MLB career, pitching nearly 3,000 innings with a lower career ERA than Jamie Moyer, a lower WHIP than Andy Pettitte, a higher fWAR than Ron Guidry, and yet he failed spectacularly in pinstripes in two separate stints.
Javier Vázquez made his first appearance in the Bronx ahead of the 2004 season after scoring a fairly effective one-two with Liván Hernandez the previous season. He was one of many names sent out as the doomed Montreal Expos began a sell-off after their final season in Quebec.
The Yankees sent a package featuring Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera and Randy Choate to acquire the big starter. All three of those players had solid careers, by the way, but it was seen as a pretty sensible move for New York to acquire a quality young pitcher for three young players whose playing time was all star-limited.
Vázquez hit the ground running and put on a jewel in his Yankees’ debut, home game in the Bronx on April 8.
Vázquez only allowed the White Sox a deserved run over eight strong frames. Overall, the Puerto Rico right-hander would have a strong first half. He posted a 3.56 ERA, which was good for a 79 ERA who finished 10th in the American League and topped the New York pitching staff. More relevant to the All-Star voters, his 10 wins punched his ticket to Houston for the Midsummer Classic – a first in his career.
However, it was the second half when the train went off the rails. Vázquez had an ERA of over 6.00 through July, August and the final two months of the season combined, and there was talk of him also struggling with shoulder problems. Overall, his ERA finished near serve at 6.92 in the second half. It was a disaster.
In the postseason, Vázquez also struggled hard when he was blown up in the ALDS clincher in Minnesota and allowed five runs in five frames, but was saved by the Yankees offense. Vázquez was also rocked in this ALCS slugfest Game 3, in which the Yanks won by a whopping 19-8 final score. That was eventually enough to encourage Joe Torre to turn to someone else for Game 7, but when Kevin Brown was struggling of his own, Torre had to try Vázquez. The end result was a grand slam for Johnny Damon, who was the final nail in the coffin of a complete meltdown.
As the Yankees licked their wounds during the offseason, they decided they were better off cutting ties with the 28-year-old — especially since they had the option of acquiring a future Hall of Famer in his place. After 111 losses in 2004, the Diamondbacks were ready to shop in ace Randy Johnson, and the Yankees made the commitment by sending Vázquez to Arizona along with prospects Dioner Navarro and Brad Halsey. (“The Big Unit” itself didn’t quite live up to the hype, either, when it finally started showing its age in pinstripes. Here’s how it works.)
Vázquez’s career took an interesting turn over the next few years. After a season in Arizona, he was traded to Chicago’s South Side, where between a mediocre few years he got involved in a laudable 2007 campaign. The Braves bought him in December 2008, and seemingly out of nowhere he put on his best season since his Expos days.
At age 32, Vázquez had a career-low 2.87 ERA over 219.1 innings, a top-five finish in National League Cy Young Award voting… and considerable interest in a surprise reunion. Although the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, they did so by using only three starting pitchers in the postseason. They wanted more rotation insurance and found it in Vázquez. The Braves sent him and backup Boone Logan* to the Bronx for outfielder Melky Cabrera and two pitching prospects: Arodys Vizcaíno and Mike Dunn.
* To make it even more interesting, he had joined Logan from the White Sox to the Braves the previous offseason.
Even though Logan saved some of the trade for the Yankees and none of the players they handled really made them regret the deal (Cabreras, uh, interesting 2012 with the Giants), boy, does Vázquez have the front line Office not made smart. He was terrible, posting the worst campaign of his career with a 5.32 ERA, 5.56 FIP and 32 homers allowed in just 157.1 innings.
Meatballs like these were the norm for Russell Branyan:
Vázquez eventually lost his rotational spot to rookie Iván Nova and was dropped from the playoff roster entirely when New York eventually fell to the ALCS. That was the end of Javy 2: The Even Worse Sequel.
To his credit, Vázquez would have one last good season the following year. He rebounded with the Marlins with a mid-3.00 ERA before retiring at age 35 with 2,536 strikeouts and a few offers still on the table.
Whether it was arm problems, bad luck, circumstances or whatever, Vázquez couldn’t find himself in two failed stints with the Yankees. It was all the more evident when you considered his entire career and all the success he’s had elsewhere.