The Nationals have done their due diligence on veteran free agent starter Javier Vazquez, with General Manager Mike Rizzo traveling to Puerto Rico this week to see the 36-year-old right-hander pitch during a playoff game in a winter league there. The Nationals were impressed with Vazquez and if they decide to try and lure him with a minor league contract, it could make sense.
The Nationals could add depth to the organization’s starters — given that their major league rotation is already set — with a 14-year veteran with a 165-160 career record and a 4.22 ERA. If any of the starters in the Nationals vaunted rotation were to get hurt, Vazquez could step in. But that might mean that Vazquez would have to be stashed in Class AAA or less likely, possibly stay on a starter’s schedule while relieving in an already-crowded bullpen.
The Nationals could offer a minor league contract with an “out” – an option for the pitcher to ask for his release by a certain date if not added to the major league active roster. It could be attractive to join a team projected to be a World Series contender. Vazquez, however, may not initially be interested in a minor league deal, according to a person close to him.
“If he wants to pitch, he wants to pitch in the big leagues,” said Criollos de Caguas General Manager Alex Cora in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. Cora runs Vazquez’s current winter ball team, the Criollos de Caguas, and became friends with the fellow Puerto Rican as they crossed paths in the major leagues. (Cora hasn’t played in the majors since the 2011 season with the Nationals but hasn’t officially retired, giving the front office side a try this winter.)
Cora said spending last season with his family and away from baseball helped Vazquez and his arm that logged 2,840 innings in his career. In Vazquez’s last start on Wednesday, he tossed six innings, allowed one run and struck out 10 batters. During the regular season, he had a 3.52 ERA in 23 innings over five starts and 30 strikeouts for Leones de Ponce. Cora said Wednesday’s start came on four days rest — shorter than during the regular season. He also said he sat near the scouts and noticed that Vazquez consistently hit 94 mph on his fastball.
Rizzo and special assistant Deric Ladnier were in attendance on Wednesday for Vazquez’s start. Rizzo, a former scout who likes to scout players for himself, it appears, was the first general manager to see Vazquez pitch in Puerto Rico. The Chicago White Sox, one of Vazquez’s former teams, and Boston Red Sox have also scouted Vazquez, with the Red Sox present at most all of his starts.
“He’s been great,” Cora said. “Right now, he’s the Javy Vazquez who pitched well in the second half of the 2011 season. … Physically, he’s in the best shape of his life. It’s funny, he was here in the summer and he was playing tennis and I helped him play. He started doing CrossFit … His command is still there but his stuff is better now.”
At first, Cora said he was surprised the Nationals were interested in Vazquez given the rotation they already possess, which he remembers from his time in Washington. ”But they’re obviously interested,” he said.
Vazquez will wait until after he plays in the World Baseball Classic in March to decide what he will do next season — and that doesn’t necessarily mean he will return to the majors, Cora said. He last pitched in 2011 for the Florida Marlins when he punched up a 3.69 ERA and 13-11 record over 192 2/3 innings with 162 strikeouts. Given the Nationals current roster makeup, it could tough to lure Vazquez.
“To be honest, I think he’s feeling the itch [of the majors],” Cora said. “I think the decision is far from being taken. The decision is going to involve his family.”