Braves acquire reliable Vazquez to fill gaping rotation hole

Jake Peavy might have been the sexier name on the offseason trade market, but the Braves went a different direction today by acquiring Javier Vazquez from the White Sox, reportedly for four prospects.  Lefty reliever Boone Logan is also rumored to be coming to Atlanta, while Brent Lillibridge and Tyler Flowers are among the names rumored to be heading to Chicago at this point.  Vazquez is under contract for two more years and $23 million.  He had a 4.67 ERA this year in 208.1 innings.

This is the fourth time in six years that Vazquez has been moved in an offseason deal.  He was first unloaded to the Yankees in a salary dump move by the Expos in December ’03.  After struggling mightily in 2004, the Yanks treated him like damaged goods and shipped him (and cash) to the Diamondbacks.  After re-establishing himself in 2005 as a decent starter, the D-Backs sent him to Chicago, where he posted league average seasons in 2006 and 2008 with a good year in 2007 in between.  I suppose that primes him for a rebound in 2009, since it’s an odd-numbered year.

Vazquez is not an ace like Peavy, but he is far, far less of an injury concern.  He has been among the best workhorses in baseball since 2000, having made at least 32 starts in 9 consecutive seasons (296 total) with an ERA+ of 111 over that span.  Only Livan Hernandez and Greg Maddux have made more starts in that time period, and only Hernandez has pitched more innings.  Only 20 active pitchers have made even half as many starts as Vazquez since 2000 while maintaining a better ERA+.  That should help put some of his recently uninspiring ERA numbers into perspective.

Other than his reliability, what I like about Vazquez is his ability to miss bats while maintaining his command of the strike zone.  He has maintained a strikeout rate (per 9 innings) of over 8 and a walk rate of under 3 for each of the last four seasons.  Those are solid indicators that last year’s struggles were based more on bad luck (BABIP fluctuation) than any kind of real decline.  In 2008, Vazquez kept his FIP in the 3.7 range that he had already established as his performance level.  Bill James has projected him for a strong ERA correction to 3.80 in 2009, while Marcel (the simplest projection system around) has him at 4.21.  Those will probably get even more optimistic after adjusting for the move to the National League.

I like the move, especially if the Braves aren’t giving up a whole lot more on the prospect front than has been reported.  While I like Tyler Flowers, he’s blocked at catcher for the foreseeable future, and his offensive potential is slightly less impressive if he can’t handle catcher defensively.  He was still arguably one of the Braves’ three best prospects, but that merely made him a prime trade chip, and the Braves used him for just that.  Brent Lillibridge stalled out last year and raised some questions about his long-term hitting projection.  The Braves’ organizational depth at shortstop makes his departure more than acceptable, since Brandon Hicks continues to improve.

I still don’t consider the Braves to be strong contenders in 2009, even with Vazquez, but I suppose they’re putting the pieces in place for a run in 2010 when Hudson should be fully recovered.  If they can acquire another impact starter and an outfield bat between now and April, though, I might change that tune.

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