It is not uncommon in baseball for certain players to have anywhere from solid to illustrious careers, and yet be remembered in a very different way by specific fan bases due to failed short stints with the ballclub.
There are cases in which it is not even about what the player did or didn’t do, but how he got there. Take James Shields and the White Sox for instance. He is remembered as the guy who cost them Fernando Tatis Jr., and not the “Big Game” James who pitched 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, in two separate stints, he failed spectacularly in pinstripes.
Javier Vázquez first came over to the Bronx ahead of the 2004 season, having formed a rather effective one-two punch with Liván Hernandez in the previous season. He was one of many names shipped off as the doomed Montreal Expos began a fire sale in wake of their final season in Quebec.
The Yankees sent a package with Nick Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Randy Choate to acquire the big-time starter. All three of those players ended up with solid careers, by the way, but for New York, it was seen as a pretty reasonable move to acquire a quality young pitcher for three young players who all had their playing time limited by stars.
Vázquez hit the ground running, pitching a gem in his Yankees’ debut, the home opener in the Bronx on April 8th.
Vázquez allowed only one earned run to the White Sox over eight strong frames. Overall, the right-hander out of Puerto Rico would go on to have a strong first half. He pitched to a 3.56 ERA, which was good for an ERA- of 79 that ranked 10th in the American League and tops on the New York pitching staff. More relevantly for the All-Star electorate, his 10 wins punched his ticket to Houston for the Midsummer Classic — a career-first.
However, it was the second half when the train went off the rails. Vázquez had an ERA above 6.00 in July, August, and the last two months of the season combined, and there was talk of him battling shoulder troubles, too. In total, his second-half ERA ended near serve, at 6.92. It was a disaster.
In the postseason, Vázquez also struggled heavily, as he got blown up in the ALDS clincher at Minnesota, allowing five runs in five frames, but getting bailed out by the Yankees offense. Vázquez also got rocked in that slugfest Game 3 of the ALCS, in which the Yanks won by a whopping 19-8 final score. That was finally enough to encourage Joe Torre to turn to someone else for Game 7, but when Kevin Brown struggled in his own right, Torre had to try Vázquez. The end result was a grand slam to Johnny Damon that was the final nail in the coffin of an utter collapse.
As the Yankees licked their wounds in the offseason, they decided that they were better off cutting ties with the 28-year-old — especially since they had an opportunity to acquire a future Hall of Famer in his place. After 111 losses in ‘04, the Diamondbacks were willing to shop ace Randy Johnson, and the Yankees obliged by sending Vázquez to Arizona alongside prospects Dioner Navarro and Brad Halsey. (“The Big Unit” himself didn’t really live up to the hype either, as he finally began to show his age in pinstripes. So it goes.)
Vázquez’s career took an interesting turn over the next few years. After a season in Arizona, he was dealt to the South Side of Chicago, where he mixed in a commendable 2007 campaign in between a few so-so years. The Braves acquired him in December 2008, and out of seemingly nowhere, he turned in his best season since his Expos days.
At age-32, Vázquez had a career-low 2.87 ERA over 219.1 innings, earning a top-five finish in National League Cy Young Award voting ... and a considerable bit of interest in a surprising reunion. Although the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, they did so by only using three starting pitchers in the postseason. They wanted more rotation insurance, and they found it in Vázquez. The Braves flipped him and reliever Boone Logan* to the Bronx for outfielder Melky Cabrera and two pitching prospects: Arodys Vizcaíno and Mike Dunn.
*To make it all the more interesting, he had been flipped with Logan to the Braves from the White Sox in the previous offseason.
Although Logan salvaged some of the trade for the Yankees and none of the players they dealt really made them rue the deal (Cabrera’s, er, interesting 2012 with the Giants notwithstanding), boy did Vázquez not make the front office look smart. He was horrible, 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 this one to Russell Branyan were the norm:
Vázquez eventually lost his rotation spot to rookie Iván Nova and was left off the playoff roster entirely as New York ultimately fell in the ALCS. That was the end of Javy 2: The Even Worse Sequel.
To his credit, Vázquez would go on to have one final good season in the subsequent year. He bounced back with the Marlins to the tune of a mid-3.00’s ERA, before retiring at age-35 with 2,536 strikeouts and some offers still on the table.
Whether it was pitching through some arm issues, bad luck, circumstances, or whatever, Vázquez could not find himself through two failed stints with the Yankees. It was all the more noticeable when one stops to consider his entire career, and all the success he had elsewhere.