December 4, 2003

Sacrificing OBP Jesus

In yesterday's entry I talked about the Twins trading Eric Milton and his $9 million-dollar salary for 2004 to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Twins got a couple of marginally useful players and a PTBNL, but the deal was, for all intents and purposes, a straight salary dump.

Yesterday afternoon, the Montreal Expos made a very similar trade with the Yankees, "dumping" Javier Vazquez and his salary for next season (projected to be about $10 million) on New York. Like with Milton and the Twins, the Expos made the move because of their payroll limitations.

The biggest difference between the two trades is obvious, which is that Javier Vazquez is simply a better pitcher than Eric Milton. Beyond that, Vazquez is a pitcher who is coming off an extremely good 2003 season, whereas Milton spent almost the entire year on the disabled-list.

Those differences explain why the Twins got two roster-fillers and a PTBNL, while the Expos received one of the most promising young hitters in all of baseball, as well as another fairly valuable young hitter.

Before we get to those guys, let's talk about the guy the Yankees got...


2000 23 217.2 4.05 114 8.1 2.5 1.0 .257
2001 24 223.2 3.42 135 8.4 1.8 1.0 .216
2002 25 230.1 3.91 106 7.0 1.9 1.1 .248
2003 26 230.2 3.24 153 9.4 2.2 1.1 .219

Now, that's a pitcher. Vazquez has been a workhorse for Montreal over the last four years, pitching a total of 902.1 innings during that span, including 461 innings over the last two years. He has also been solidly above-average in all four seasons, including two years (2001 and 2003) when he was flat-out dominant. I included his GPA against, because I think it's an interesting way to look at pitchers that goes beyond simple run-prevention. Vazquez had incredible GPA against totals in 2001 and 2003, and simply very good ones in 2000 and 2002.

The guy is young, he is good, he is durable and his style fits the Yankees pretty well. Vazquez is a high strikeout pitcher, which means he allows less balls to be put in play against him than most. That's a good skill for a pitcher on the Yankees to possess because, despite all of their moves so far this off-season, their defense is still significantly below par.

In addition to getting a lot of outs without relying on the defense, Vazquez is also an extreme fly ball pitcher, which means the outs he is relying on his defense to get for him are primarily coming from outfielders.

Now, Bernie Williams has lost about 20 steps in the center field over the last few years and Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield are no great shakes in the corners, but I'll take my chances asking those three to get me my outs over the Yankees' infield (which, along with the problems up the middle, now includes Jason Giambi and his bad knee at first base, at least for the time being).

Vazquez's only real weakness is his propensity for giving up a fair number of homers - 24, 24, 28 and 28 over the last four seasons. Giving up a homer every nine innings or so isn't getting into Jose Lima-territory or anything, but if you are looking for a chink in Vazquez's armor, that's probably your best bet. Other than that, he looks just about perfect. Young, durable, good strikeout-rates, good walk-rates - he's the real deal.

Like Jose Vidro and, to a certain extent, Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez has played in relative obscurity over the last several years in Montreal. I expect him to have an excellent season for the Yankees and, with the help of their incredible offense and the massive increase in media attention he will receive, I think it's pretty likely that Javier Vazquez is going to be a household-name a year from now. He'll be hurt by the defense, but not as much as a lot of pitchers would be, and that lineup will score him runs in bunches. He's my early darkhorse Cy Young candidate for next year in the AL.

In order to get their hands on Vazquez, the Yankees had to give up quite a bit. The package they gave Montreal isn't even in the same universe as the one the Twins got for Milton and it's significantly better than what the Red Sox sent to Arizona for Curt Schilling.

The centerpiece of the package is Nick Johnson, whom I believe has one of the highest offensive upsides of any player in baseball right now.


2002 23 129 441 .243 .347 .402 .257
2003 24 96 406 .284 .422 .472 .308

As is the case with many "high-ceiling" players, Johnson also comes with a major question-mark. He has had way more than his fair share of injuries in his pro career. While in the minors, he missed all of the 2000 season with a wrist injury and he played in just 129 games for the Yankees in 2002 (wrist) and only 96 games last season (broken hand). If you can look past him not being on the field all that often, Johnson looks like a future superstar.

After hitting just .243 in his rookie season, he boosted his average up to .284 last season. He also has a career Triple-A batting average of .304 in 248 games.

He hasn't shown huge power in the minors or the majors as of yet, but he did hit 14 homers and 19 doubles in just 324 at bats last year for a .472 slugging percentage, which is damn good for a 24-year old. His GPA of .308 ranked seventh among major league first basemen and DHs last season.

Johnson may never hit .330 or smack 50 homers, but he has the potential to be an offensive-machine, thanks to his absolutely incredible plate discipline. Before his wrist-injury, Johnson had a season that would make any sabermetrically-inclined baseball fan drool, posting a .528 on-base percentage in Triple-A at the tender age of 20. He walked 123 times in 132 games that season. Then, after missing all of 2000, Johnson came back in 2001 and posted a .407 OBP at Triple-A, despite hitting just .256.

In his first full-season with the Yankees, Johnson walked just 48 times in 129 games and had an uncharacteristically bad strikeout/walk ratio of 98/48. Johnson bounced back in a big way in 2003, walking 70 times in 96 games, compared to just 57 strikeouts.

At 24 years old, Johnson had a .422 on-base percentage in 406 plate appearances. Here is the complete list of players since 1990 who have posted an on-base percentage of at least .420 in a season with 400+ plate appearances by the age of 24:

                    YEAR     AGE      OBP

John Olerud 1993 24 .473
Frank Thomas 1991 23 .453
Albert Pujols 2003 23 .439
Frank Thomas 1992 24 .439
Jim Thome 1995 24 .438
Nick Johnson 2003 24 .422
Alex Rodriguez 2000 24 .420

That's a hell of a list. With company like that, it's no wonder Johnson's nickname (at least among guys like me) is "OBP Jesus."

I think there is a very good chance that Nick Johnson will one of the top 5-10 hitters in all of baseball over the next decade or so. He has the potential to be a .300-hitter with good, developing power, and he should consistently draw 100+ walks a year.

The only thing that will keep him from becoming that player is injuries. Whether or not you think breaking a hand should be more evidence that a player is "injury prone," the fact is that Johnson has missed huge chunks of time in two of the last four seasons and has had two other years in which his performance was down significantly, perhaps because of injuries.

Will he be able to stay healthy? Who knows, your guess is as good as mine. I sometimes wonder if the ability to stay healthy is a skill, just like Johnson's incredible ability to draw walks and get on base. If it is a skill, Johnson and the Expos are no doubt hoping that it is one that can be learned.

In addition to Johnson, the Expos also got another young hitter who has a chance to be a nice player. Juan Rivera has spent parts of the last two years with the Yankees, hitting .262/.302/.427 in 280 total plate appearances. Rivera is older than Johnson and his offensive potential isn't even in the same ballpark, but he still has a chance to be a productive corner outfielder for Montreal.

Check out his minor league numbers:


2001 23 AA 77 331 .320 .353 .528 .291
AAA 55 214 .327 .372 .603 .318
2002 24 AAA 65 278 .325 .355 .502 .285
2003 25 AAA 79 334 .325 .374 .461 .284

He doesn't walk much, but he has shown the ability to hit for very high batting averages and he also has some good power. I could definitely see him putting together a few .290/.340/.450 seasons in Montreal.

The Expos, once again, found themselves in a very tough position. One in which they were forced to trade away one of their best players, right in the middle of his prime. To Omar Minaya's credit, he worked a deal with the Yankees that gets Montreal two legitimate young hitters who can be plugged into the everyday lineup immediately.

Johnson should be their everyday first baseman until he gets too expensive to keep in a few years, and Rivera will likely take over for Vladimir Guerrero in right field. Javier Vazquez is going to be great for the Yankees, but if Nick Johnson can stay healthy (and that is a massive, Mo Vaughn-sized "if"), this deal will work out very well for the Expos, particularly considering the circumstances.

For the Yankees, they may be kicking themselves a few years from now if Johnson turns into the offensive-machine he is capable of becoming. That said, even if that happens, they'll still be the Yankees, which means they'll have no problem building an offense that scores tons of runs. With reagard to Rivera, he became completely expendable with Gary Sheffield coming to the Yankees.

I would guess that Johnson leaving means that the Yankees will move Bernie Williams to DH and get themselves a new center fielder, either through trade (Carlos Beltran?) or free agency (Mike Cameron, Kenny Lofton). With the improvement Sheffield should provide over the production their right fielders gave them last year, their offense won't be any worse off without Johnson. Their defense on the other hand, with Jason Giambi playing first base everyday and Mr. Clutch and Alfonso Soriano playing up the middle...well, it could get ugly when Vazquez isn't striking people out.

All in all, this is a good trade for both teams.


That's it for this week, thanks for stopping by. If you missed any of the entries from earlier in the week, here they are:

Monday: Not So Gleeman-Length Thoughts

Tuesday: Coming to America

Wednesday: Quality versus quantity

Thursday: Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out

Also, there's a new website/blog that I suggest you all check out. It's written by Mark McClusky, formerly of Sports Illustrated and EA Sports and Salon and all sorts of other cool places that I would love to work for someday. He's already got a bunch of good stuff up, so go check it out...

Tell him I sent ya...

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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