Vazquez Deal Essential, But Doubts Linger

It didn't take long for them to respond to the Red Sox acquisition of Curt Schilling. The Yankees got a stellar 27-year-old right-hander in Javier Vazquez to slot adequately into the middle of their rotation, but the charge, Nick Johnson, was high-pitched. Now, with Jason Giambi's health still up in the air following surgery on his knee, should the organization have targeted flame-thrower Bartolo Colon instead of having to ship out their young talent?

The brass of the organization didn't think so.

And they were right.

The Montreal Expos traded Javier Vazquez to the New York Yankees on Thursday morning in exchange for first basemen Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera, and right-handed reliever Randy Choate.

It's no concealed fact that pitching and defense wins World Series rings, demonstrated by the team's rise to dominance beginning in 1996. When Manny Ramirez, the most lethal hitter available on the market at the time, was available in 2000, the team went the route of Mike Mussina.

They know, and we know, that pitching is the key to success.

Yet, that doesn't mean that Nick Johnson's departure won't be felt in the Yankee lineup. Not by a long stretch. Despite being injury prone over the course of his brief professional career, he's been touted as a can't miss player and demonstrated why in 2003.

It didn't take too long for the Bronx Bombers to counter the Red Sox acquisition of Curt Schilling from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but Theo Epstein, Boston's GM, knew it was coming.

"I didn't think they were just going to sit there and stand pat," Epstein told the Associated Press as news of the trade came down. "With their resources and their ability to attract top talent, I knew they were going to spend it, and they're bringing in some good players. ... We knew they were going to get someone. That's one of the reasons why it was important for us to kind of go out there first and try to build our club they way we want to."

Management thought long and hard before pulling the trigger on the deal, uncertain whether or not they really wanted to part with Johnson for a possible one-year rental in Vazquez.

Originally, the Yankees were requesting a 72-hour window to work out a long-term contract with the pitcher, but Expos general manager Omar Minaya wouldn't grant it. Over time, the Yanks felt comfortable enough that they could work it out at a later time that they went ahead and made the swap.

When did the idea of shipping Vazquez to New York first develop?

"This trade started when Brian Cashman and I went out to dinner during the general managers' meeting," Minaya said to the Associated Press. "He'll be very popular in New York with so many Hispanic fans.''

The 25-year-old Johnson, limited to just 324 at bats last season, was fourth on the team in walks, just one behind Bernie Williams who had 100 more ABs. His .422 on-base-percentage was best on the team and he finished the year hitting at .284 with 14 homers and 47 RBIs.

When he was placed on disabled list in the middle of May with a fractured bone in his hand, it wasn't long before people began to notice that they were severely missing his presence. The team's offense went into a steady decline through June and into July while he was sidelined with injury.

Most importantly though is Jason Giambi's surgically repaired knee. Many inside the organization feel his career as a fielder is in serious jeopardy, leaving a gapping hole at an underrated defensive position.

Nick Johnson was the solution and showed superior defensive skills that would allow him to play there on an everyday basis. Now Brian Cashman will have to search for an answer as an insurance policy, with such names available on the free agent market that include the likes of J.T. Snow, Robert Fick, Scott Spiezio, Daryle Ward, Raphael Palmeiro, Eric Karros, and Travis Lee.

An opportunity to get Vazquez -- who was 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA in 2003 -- was too hard to resist. The right-hander is a work-horse, finishing second in the National League with 230.2 innings pitched last season. His other NL ranks included 3rd in strikeouts (241), 10th in ERA (3.24), 4th in WHIP (1.11), and 6th in complete games (4).

He's something special.

"I think Vazquez is one of the better young pitchers in the game," Minaya continued to the Associated Press. "When he goes out there, he gives you everything."

He is eligible for salary arbitration and, after making $6 million last year, could expect to see a raise of around $2-3 million.

The upper-echelon of the organization decided to take that option, considering they were extremely concerned with the weight issues of Bartolo Colon and felt his contract demands weren't justifiable.

The deal to acquire Javier was essential, but the loss of Nick Johnson could be felt more than most anticipate.

You can e-mail baseball analyst Christopher Guy at CGGuy86@Yahoo.com


Pinstripes Plus Top Stories