04 December 2003

Vazquez Right-Wing Conspiracy

I am not happy.

My favorite team has just officially announced a trade for one of the ten best pitchers in all of major league baseball, and I'm not happy about it.

It would appear that there is some vast conspiracy, some grandiose plan to rid my favorite team of anyone who might be both successful and cheap at the major league level, thereby neccessitating these continuous, infernal ticket price increases. Sadly, the conspirators in this process happen also to be the ones who actually run the team, so there's nothing I can do about it.

Evidently it was almost too good to be true to think that an up-and-coming young LHP (Brandon Claussen) might have actually earned himself a rotation spot next year, so they dumped him off on Cincinnati. And now, the possibility of having not one, but two or three relatively inexpensive, home-grown players who might not just be good parts of a championship club, but actually stars on it, was just too much to bear. So, out go Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera, and in comes Great Pitcher about to Get Expensive.

Oh, sure, I'm looking forward to watching Javier Vazquez win some games in Yankee pinstripes. The 5-6 runs per game the Yankees could score when he pitches mean that he could win 20 games even without matching the kind of stellar performance he has compiled with the Expos over the last few years. You couldn't do any better to fill a hole in your starting rotation via trade. Well, unless you can get Curt Schilling, but who could pull that off? Besides, with the age difference, I'll take Vazquez long-term any day.

As a Yankee fan, I won't especially miss Juan Rivera, even though he's young, cheap, and could have been the heir to Bernie Williams in CF if the organization ever admits to itself that Bernie doesn't belong out there anymore. Rivera's kind of projected as Juan Gonzalez-lite, which is a pretty good guy to have on your team, as long as he doesn't come with Juan-Gone's trips to the doctor.

I won't miss LOOGY (Lefty-One-Out-GuY) Randy Choate. Heck, I don't think I even knew that Choate pitched for the Yankees in 2003. I think I sneezed once in April or something and I missed it.

But I'll miss Nick. Oh, will I ever miss Nick. Nick Johnson is the kind of player you dream about your team developing. The kind of player a stat-head like me lays awake at night trying to figure out how to make one of these for the computer baseball game I play to pass time between loads of laundry on quiet Saturday afternoons. The kind of player you tell your kids you got to see play before anyone knew how good he was gonna be.

BP said last year that he might end up a cross between Barry Bonds and John Olerud, in terms of his hitting. This is a guy with already tremendous plate discipline, now walking more than he strikes out, developing power (slugging percentages from .313 to .402 to .472 the last three years in NY) and a pretty decent glove to boot (or not to boot, as is the hope with infielders...) Johnson's 1999 season at AA-Norwich, at age 21, saw him rake for a Bonds-ian .526 on-base percentage, not to mention 52 extra-base hits in only 420 at-bats for a .538 slugging%), which made him one of the best prospects in all of baseball, if not for his health.

This guy's talent might be once-in-a-lifetime. The problem is that his injuries are more like once-in-a-season, and tend to cost him a month or two at a time. Consider:

1998: Separated shoulder. Misses six weeks.
1999: 37 hit-by-pitches, due to plate-crowding. Plays 132 of 140 games at AA.
2000: Does not play. Undiagnosed wrist injury keeps him out entire season.
2001: Plays 110 games for Columbus and 23 for Yankees
2002: Wrist sprain. Misses four weeks.
2003: Stress fracture in his right hand. Misses over two months

If not for the injuries (which, I realize, is right up there with "If Woody had gone right to the police...") Johnson would not be traded for anyone. You couldn't offer a GM enough to let this guy go. His career numbers, to this point, compare favorably to John Olerud's after three years in the majors, and Johnson hasn't even had three full years. Take a look:

Johnson	Age   AB   R    H  2B  HR RBI  BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

2001* 22 358 32 69 11 11 43 37 80 .194 .308 .313 .621
2002* 23 454 67 110 18 18 70 58 118 .243 .347 .402 .749
2003* 24 458 85 130 27 20 66 99 81 .284 .422 .472 .894

1990 21 358 43 95 15 14 48 57 75 .265 .364 .430 .794
1991 22 454 64 116 30 17 68 68 84 .256 .353 .438 .791
1992 23 458 68 130 28 16 66 70 61 .284 .375 .450 .825

I've normalized(*) for Johnson's relative lack of playing time, since he saw only 23 games in the majors in 2001, and only 96 in 2003.

Now I'll grant you that John Olerud is not Lou Gehrig, but who is? And the fact that Johnson displays the command and ability he's shown at this young stage in his career, though he is a year older, but without the benefit of as much playing time as Olerud had through three years in the bigs, is impressive. Think about it: If you could get John Olerud's skills, with more power, even more patience and possibly better defense, wouldn't you take it in a heartbeat? Omar Minaya would. And did.

And if he gets enough playing time, Johnson could break out next year, just like Olerud did, win a batting title, lead the league in OBP and OPS, and lead the Yankees to a World Series.

Sorry, I meant the Expos. So much for the World Series. So now, instead of fulfilling his destiny of becoming the neext, great cog in the Yankee Championship Machine, Johnson gets to be the shiny chrome bumper on the rusty '78 Pinto the Montreal Expos organization has become. Very sad.

But the Yankees needed to make a splash, and they needed some solid starting pitching, and they felt that with the injury risk that Johnson seems to be, it would be a worthwhile opportunity cost. The ironic part is that in three or four years, Nick Johnson will be elligible for salary arbitration, and if he's as good as I think he'll be, the Expos won't be able to afford him. So the Yankees could get him back anyway. And he may still do great things in Yankee pinstripes. Just not for a long while.

So long, Nicholas Robert Johnson. We hardly knew ye.

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