When looking at the free agent pitchers left on the market, the pickings are slim for teams still in need of a starter. Aside from Kyle Lohse and Shaun Marcum, there really aren't any pitchers left that could slide in as a third starter for a contender, unless you're a believe in Joe Saunders or the health of Daisuke Matsuzaka. However, one name is popping up on the radar a lot more frequently this week, and that name could provide substantially more value than any of the sexier names on the market, including some who have already signed. That pitcher is Javier Vazquez, who took the 2012 season off but wasn't ready to call it a career.
In Puerto Rico this winter, Vazquez has thrown 23 innings for Caguas. In those 23 innings, he's struck out 30, walked six, and pitched to a 3.52 ERA. His start yesterday, in which Vazquez threw six shutout innings, allowed three hits, and struck out four without a walk, was scouted by the Red Sox, Rays, Nationals, and Royals, with Vazquez's fastball touching 93 mph during the start.
Vazquez isn't some sort of reclamation project. He's only 36-years old, is reportedly in great shape, and hasn't lost his feel of how to pitch. Perhaps more importantly, Vazquez wants to come back (Spanish link) after taking 2012 off. Vazquez has also stated that he wants to pitch for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, and if he's not signed by the time the Classic kicks off in two months, that would be a fantastic stage for him to prove to people skeptical of his abilities that he's back, especially against the potentially loaded Venezuela and Dominican Republic teams in Puerto Rico's pool.
Yankees fans are probably shaking their heads right now, remember Vazquez's two disastrous stints with New York in 2004 and 2010, when he pitched to a 5.09 ERA while also posting two of the worst strikeout rates in his career. But Vazquez was dominant with the Braves in 2009, amassing 6.5 fWAR while striking out 238 and posting a career-best 2.87 ERA. After his lost 2010 with the Yankees, Vazquez returned to the National League with the Marlins in 2011 and rebounded quite nicely, posting a 3.69 ERA with 162 strikeouts and a total of 3.2 fWAR. In fact, aside from Vazquez's two seasons with the Yankees, he was worth at least three wins above replacement in every year from 2000 to 2011, topping the four win mark eight times.
At 36, and with a year away from the game, I doubt he's still a four win pitcher. He might not even be a three win pitcher. But Vazquez's situation is much different from that of Roy Oswalt, who dealt with injuries in 2011 before not signing until late May with the Rangers and then getting mashed as a starter and demoted to the bullpen. Vazquez was healthy in 2011 with the Marlins, and his velocity ticked back up after dropping in 2011 with the Yankees. If he's sitting at 93 right now in Puerto Rico and getting hitters out, signing him to a low base/high incentive contract could be an absolute steal for a team like the Royals, who still need pitching even after revamping their rotation this winter.
I've been saying this endlessly when talking about other starting pitchers this winter, but look at some of the contracts that have been handed out to mediocre starters. Kevin Correia got $10 million over two years. Brett Myers got $7 million for one year. Francisco Liriano got $12.75 million over two years. Jeremy Guthrie got $25 million over three years. Mike Pelfrey got $4 million and Scott Baker got $5.5 million, and both are recovering from Tommy John surgery. You mean to tell me that Vazquez at something like $2-3 million with a lot of incentives is somehow a worse signing than any of those? It's ridiculous.
During his career, Vazquez has been one of the more underappreciated players across the game. Right now, it looks like that teams are starting to realize that this is a guy that can help their club in 2013 without breaking the bank. The Braves experienced what Vazquez can do for a team in 2009, when they traded a package of four below average to average prospects to the White Sox for Vazquez, only to see him finish second in the NL in fWAR and be the rock of their rotation. Vazquez might not have an impact that monumental for a team in 2013, but can he be a huge value buy for a team? You're damn right he can be.