Javier Vazquez had figured it out. While at home in Puerto Rico over the winter, he had studied videotapes of his pitching performances and was sure he had spotted the flaw in his delivery that caused his decline in the second half of the 2004 season, his first as a New York Yankee. He'd make a minor adjustment, he thought, and show the Yanks that they hadn't made a mistake in trading for him, that he really was the elite starter they thought they were getting when they acquired him from the Expos the previous winter.
Then Vazquez got the phone call he was dreading, from general manager Brian Cashman, informing him that he'd been traded to the Diamondbacks for five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson. "I had heard the rumors, but I was hoping they weren't true," Vazquez says. "It was nothing against Arizona, but I wanted the Yankees and the people in New York to see the kind of pitcher I really am. I felt like I had unfinished business there."
Vazquez, whom the Yankees packaged with promising lefthander Brad Halsey, catcher Dioner Navarro and $9 million to acquire Johnson, now moves from a consistent winner to a team that lost 111 games last season. The Diamondbacks are counting on him to help them get back to the former category. Their housecleaning after last year's disaster began with the rotation, where only righthander Brandon Webb remains. With the exception of Johnson, none of the departed will be missed; Arizona's other starters combined for only 19 wins last season, a total Vazquez might equal by himself if he returns to form. "For years I've heard hitters include Javy among a handful of pitchers they really hated to face," says manager Bob Melvin. "With Javy and [free-agent pickup] Russ Ortiz, we have a couple guys at the front of our rotation who can compete with anybody."
After a 10--5 record and 3.36 ERA earned him a spot on the 2004 American League All-Star team, Vazquez struggled mightily in the second half, dipping to 4--5 and 6.92, and pitching himself out of New York's postseason rotation. His final appearance in pinstripes came as a reliever in Game 7 of the ALCS, when he surrendered a grand slam to Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon on his first pitch. Vazquez believes his ineffectiveness after the break stemmed from a problem with his delivery. "I wasn't releasing the ball from the same arm angle that I normally do," he says. "Sometimes when your arm gets a little tired, you drop down a little bit and start pushing the ball instead of getting on top of it. That had a lot to do with why I wasn't getting the right movement on my pitches."
At the time most observers thought Vazquez's struggle was more mental than mechanical. After six years in Montreal, comfortably outside the media spotlight, it appeared he couldn't handle the pressure and scrutiny that comes with playing in New York. Vazquez dismisses that theory as nonsense, but he won't get the chance to prove it wrong. With the Diamondbacks he's likely to be free of pennant-race pressure again, although Arizona does seem primed to show significant improvement over last year. Vazquez, Ortiz and Webb are the heart of a promising rotation, and the lineup should be much more imposing if third baseman Troy Glaus and leftfielder Luis Gonzalez, both of whom had their seasons cut short by injury last year, stay healthy enough--they've both looked fine this spring--to join rightfielder Shawn Green, making for a formidable middle of the order.
A quick turnaround by the Diamondbacks may be the only way they'll be able to retain Vazquez beyond this season. As a player who was traded while under a multiyear contract, Vazquez can request another trade after the season, and if Arizona fails to deal him, he can void the final two years of his four-year, $45 million contract and become a free agent. "I've heard a lot of good things about this organization from guys who have played here before, so I'm not looking at this as a short-term thing," he says. "But right now I'm not thinking about next year." He and the Diamondbacks will probably be better off if he doesn't think about last year either. --P.T.
Russ Ortiz's 77 wins since the 2000 All-Star break are the most of any pitcher in the NL. The righthander is 77--39 with a 3.65 ERA during that span.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the D-Backs