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Vazquez can avoid stress with the Marlins

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

The ideal pitching environment for Javier Vazquez(notes) is a mostly empty stadium in a National League city a short flight from his family in Puerto Rico. That, in a nutshell, explains his decision to sign with the Florida Marlins for one year and $7 million – less money and fewer years than other teams reportedly offered him.

He wanted comfort, not pressure. He wanted familiarity, not a challenge. That’s why manager Ozzie Guillen disliked him when Vazquez pitched for the Chicago White Sox. And it’s why New York Yankees fans despised him last season.

Sun Life Stadium will be like a comfy lounge chair on an isolated beach for Vazquez, which is just the way he likes it.

View photo

Javier Vazquez(notes) pitches for Puerto Rico during the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
(AP Photo/Jeffrey M. Boan)
Top career earnings
by Puerto Rican players
Name Pos. Earnings
Carlos Delgado(notes) 1B $146.3 million
Ivan Rodriguez(notes) C $119 million
Carlos Beltran(notes) CF $115.6 million
Jorge Posada(notes) C $104.3 million
Bernie Williams CF $103 million
Javier Vazquez P $92 million
Juan Gonzalez OF $87 million
Roberto Alomar 2B $76 million

If the Marlins and Vazquez find themselves fighting for a playoff berth next September, it’ll be on Josh Johnson(notes), Ricky Nolasco(notes) and Anibal Sanchez(notes) to win the big games. Vazquez, however, could be instrumental in getting them to that point if he approaches the 200-inning, 200-strikeout level he consistently achieved until last season.

Vazquez, in fact, might turn out to be one of the shrewdest acquisitions of the offseason – if he stays healthy. Whether the 5.32 ERA and highest walk rate of his career came because of poor mechanics or an injury – his average fastball dipped from 91.1 mph in 2009 to 88.7 mph last year – Vazquez's year with the Yankees was a debacle. The season mimicked his previous American League turns in New York and Chicago, big cities with big expectations and heavy criticism.

Unable to command anything near the three-year, $34-million deal he signed after the 2007 season, he opted to rebuild his value with Florida. It’s no longer about the money to the 34-year-old Vazquez, who already is the most successful Puerto Rican starter and most highly paid, having made $92.4 million through 2009. For a bargain price, the Marlins get a pitcher whose career of late has lilted – good year, bad year, odd-numbered seasons providing better numbers.

Florida may provide the perfect canvas, and not just because Vazquez is pals with new Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez. In eight of the last 10 seasons, Sun Life Stadium has played as a below-average home run-hitting park, sometimes as much as 30 percent below average. Homers are Vazquez's weakness. He’s allowed 352, more than any active pitcher besides Jamie Moyer(notes), who is all but retired, and 43-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield(notes) – both pitchers have thrown hundreds more innings than Vazquez. He gave up 32 homers in 157 1/3 innings last season, behind only James Shields(notes), who gave up two more in 46 more innings.

By adding Vazquez to an already formidable rotation that includes Chris Volstad(notes) in addition to Johnson, Nolasco and Sanchez, the Marlins continue to be the most active NL team this offseason.

Florida also signed free agent catcher John Buck(notes) to a three-year, $18 million deal and made two significant trades, dealing away increasingly expensive power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla(notes), underachieving center fielder Cameron Maybin(notes) and failed starter Andrew Miller(notes) for mostly bullpen help, including right-handers Edward Mujica(notes) and Ryan Webb(notes) and left-handers Mike Dunn(notes) and Dustin Richardson(notes).

Dunn, Richardson and Webb are all young with significiant upside if command issues can be solved. Mujica, by contrast, has pinpoint control, walking six while striking out 72 in 69 2/3 innings for the San Diego Padres last season.

In an offseason where the most shocking free-agent signing was the $16.5 million Detroit handed to setup reliever Joaquin Benoit(notes), the Marlins have done well to stock their bullpen with inexpensive, effective arms.

Here are the top relievers remaining on the market as ranked by Jeff Passan’s inimitable ultimate free-agent tracker.

1. Mariano Rivera(notes) (No. 7 overall):With everyone’s attention in New York diverted by the Derek Jeter(notes) drama, Rivera is quietly trying to negotiate a second guaranteed year from the Yankees at a rate of $18 million per.

2. Rafael Soriano(notes) (No. 8 overall): The cash shoveled at Benoit will only embolden agent Scott Boras to ratchet up the price for Soriano, who besides Rivera is the only reliable closer on the market.

3. Kerry Wood(notes) (No. 21 overall): Check that. If healthy and not overused, Wood could close. He’d be best, however, working seventh or eighth innings like he did for the Yankees in the second half of 2010.

4. Scott Downs(notes) (No. 32 overall): The top left-handed reliever on the market could command a deal equal to that of Benoit even though Downs turns 35 in the spring. He also could cost the team that signs him a high draft pick.

5. Grant Balfour(notes) (No. 34 overall): Balfour is another top-shelf setup reliever with a high strikeout ratio and nasty disposition who could command a multi-year, eight-figure deal.

6. Brian Fuentes(notes) (No. 35 overall): Too risky as a closer, but still valuable for any team needing a situational left-hander.

7. Koji Uehara(notes) (No. 37 overall): The Baltimore Orioles didn’t offer Uehara arbitration but plan to re-sign him to a one-year contract for less than the $6.5 million he likely would have gotten from an arbitrator. The Orioles are betting that Uehara can’t find a multi-year deal elsewhere because of his age (35) and frequent injuries (four stints on the disabled list in two years).

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