PLAYER TO WATCH
While home in Puerto Rico before the 2009 season, Javier Vazquez was talking baseball with his father, Carlos. The elder Vazquez told his son he should throw more curveballs. "I knew it was true," says Javier, who was then with the Braves. "I took it to heart."
So the righthander threw a curve or slider 36.9% of the time in '09, the highest breaking-ball rate of his 12-year career. The result: Vazquez, 33, had his best season, going 15--10 with a 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts, second in the NL. In other words Vazquez barely resembled the pitcher whom the Yankees traded to Arizona after the 2004 season, when he had a 4.91 ERA, ran out of gas in the second half, was removed from the postseason rotation and surrendered a back-breaking grand slam to Boston's Johnny Damon in Game 7 of the ALCS.
In December the Yankees brought back Vazquez in a trade that sent outfielder Melky Cabrera and prospects to Atlanta. He'd be a No. 1 starter on most teams, but Vazquez will fill the fourth spot in New York. He is a workhorse—the only active pitcher to have thrown at least 198 innings each year for the past 10—and will allow the Yankees to use Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen.
Catcher Jorge Posada says Vazquez struggled in his first Yankees stint because a sore shoulder made his release point drop and pitches flatten. "After I left, I didn't think I was coming back," Vazquez says. "I really wanted to stay."
Yankees hitters' strikeout percentage in 2009, the lowest in the American League. It was the first time since the wild-card era began in 1994 that the league's top home-run-hitting team—New York led the majors with 244—was also the most difficult to whiff.
When you carry the highest payroll in the game, there's a lot of value in inexpensive solutions. With righthander Alfredo Aceves, the Yankees have one. A Mexican League find, Aceves, 27, shot through the system in 2008, reaching the majors in August on the heels of a 2.62 ERA at three minor league levels. Last year Aceves was a mop-up man, entering 26 of 43 games prior to the seventh inning, striking out 69 men and walking just 14 unintentionally for a stellar 4.9-to-1 K/BB ratio. Aceves has command of four good pitches—he misses bats with his curve and change—and he can both start and relieve. The Yankees should find a bigger role for him, either setting up Mariano Rivera as a multiple-inning reliever or as the fifth starter. Even the Yankees can't waste a pitcher as good as Aceves in low-leverage relief.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Joe Girardi
3RD SEASON WITH YANKEES
8 3 3.03 1.12
3 44 1.76 0.90
9 0 4.75 1.54
CHUCK SOLOMON (VAZQUEZ)
SHARPER IMAGE Vazquez expects his second stint in the Bronx to go more smoothly than his first.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (ACEVES)