Javier Vazquez’s American League Struggles Should Be Enough for Teams Like Red Sox to Be Skeptical

Javier VazquezIt’s amazing what can come from a scarce pitching market.

As the list of available hurlers — which was not all that impressive to begin with — dwindles even more this offseason, arguably the biggest news we’re getting slapped with is Javier Vazquez touching 95 mph on the radar gun down in Puerto Rico. And yes, believe it or not, people are getting pretty fired up about it.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported over the weekend that the Nationals have expressed “heavy interest” in Vazquez, who sat out the 2012 season after a nice campaign with the Marlins in 2011. They’re not alone in their interest either, as a few other teams, including the Red Sox, have reportedly sent scouts down to check out Vazquez.

But while Vazquez has some upside — something few pitchers remaining on the open market can claim to possess — and, by all accounts, has looked impressive during his winter ball stint, teams would be wise to contain their excitement and temper expectations when it comes to the right-hander’s 2013 outlook. That’s especially true when it comes to American League clubs.

Sure, a return to the majors would be nice to see for the veteran, and perhaps he could prove to be a worthwhile investment for a team looking to round out its rotation. To think he’s going to show up on a big league mound this season and mow down hitters with a fastball touching 95, however, would require a whole lot of optimism. More accurately, it would require false hope.

Vazquez’s velocity, which is what everyone seems to be focused on during his ongoing winter ball audition, might have increased, but one has to wonder if it’ll ultimately lead to him wearing down at an early stage in the season. Vazquez’s average fastball velocity sat at 90.4 mph in 2011, and that was a jump up from his 89-mph average in 2010. This year’s increase is an encouraging sign, albeit a development that’s hard to explain, but one has to wonder what kind of wear and tear the 36-year-old will be able to endure throwing 92-95 consistently, especially given the added workload he’ll face with the World Baseball Classic in his plans.

But the true concern surrounding Vazquez goes beyond just skepticism about whether or not he’ll hold up for a 162-game slate. After all, he has pitched at least 192 innings in 11 of his 14 seasons and has never been on the disabled list in his big league career, so from that standpoint, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it’s the red flags in his production, particularly as it relates to his time in the American League, that need be weighed heavily.

Certain pitchers tend to thrive while playing a National League brand of ball, but then struggle upon crossing over to the American League. Vazquez fits that bill, having endured his share of struggles during his five seasons in the Junior Circuit.

Below is a look at Vazquez’s career numbers in the AL, NL and overall.

National League (9 years): 103-104 (289 appearances, 288 starts), 3.99 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.1 strikeouts per 9 innings, 3.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio

American League: (5 years): 62-56 (161 appearances, 155 starts), 4.65 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.9 strikeouts per 9 innings, 2.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio

Overall (14 years): 165-160 (450 appearances, 443 starts), 4.22 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 8 strikeouts per 9 innings, 3.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio

Obviously, the National League sample size is much larger, but the NL is also where Vazquez has had his best seasons. When you start considering whether or not he’d be a fit for an AL team like the Red Sox, who play in arguably the deepest division in baseball, there is something to be said for those splits.

Those numbers don’t even highlight Vazquez’s numbers against AL East foes, which are less than stellar. The righty has posted a 4.96 ERA in 54 career appearances against teams in the AL East not named the Red Sox. His ERA against each of those four teams — Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles — falls in the bottom 11 of his opponent splits, with his 1-5 record and 7.09 ERA in six starts against the Bronx Bombers being particularly alarming for those in the Boston area.

Then, there is the notion that Vazquez wants to pitch for a contender. It’s understandable, given he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to pitch in the postseason throughout his career, but his 10.34 ERA (18 earned runs in 15 2/3 innings) isn’t exactly an encouraging mark for a team looking for a battle-tested starter. Plus, one could argue that the Red Sox — while typically contenders — might not fall into that category heading into this season as a result of what transpired last year. In other words, should the Red Sox see enough out of Vazquez this winter/spring that they’d like to take a chance on him, luring him to Beantown might not be so easy, especially if they’re competing with the likes of the Nationals for his services.

Vazquez will continue to be talked about until he makes a decision, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the interest is mostly a reflection of just how slim the starting pitching market is right now. At the end of the day, banking on Vazquez to make an impact in 2013 would require a little bit of a gamble, and the odds decrease significantly when you start talking about American League teams like the Red Sox.

Tune in to the Red Sox Town Hall on NESN at 11 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 19.

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