Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ramon Vazquez

Hey, a couple of days late, but now that the Bucs have a lull after the action of the winter meetings, as it was, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the newest Pirate, Ramon Vazquez.

Here's the short version of his baseball trek, from Mahalo:

*June 1, 1995: Drafted in the 27th round of the 1995 amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners.
*December 11, 2001: Traded with Tom Lampkin, Brett Tomko, and cash to the San Diego Padres for Ben Davis, Alex Arias, and Wascar Serrano.
*December 20, 2004: Traded with David Pauley, Jay Payton, and cash to the Boston Red Sox for Dave Roberts.
*July 7, 2005: Traded to the Cleveland Indians for Alex Cora.
*November 17, 2006: Signed with the Texas Rangers as a Free Agent.
*December 12, 2008: Signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a Free Agent.

The Pirates were on the 32-year old Puerto Rican early in the process, according to reports, and he was pretty well known to the suits from his 2005-06 stint with the Indians. They liked his professionalism, left-handed stick and the infield flexibility he offered.

"The Pirates were interested in me from the beginning, and they put an offer on the table really early," Vazquez told Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review. "This is where I want to be."

Of course, seeing his salary get jacked from $800,000 to $2,000,000 made Pittsburgh a pretty straightforward sell, too. They easily outbid cash-strapped Arizona for his services. Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reported that the deal consisted of a $250,000 signing bonus, a $1.75M salary for 2009 and a $2M salary for 2010.

"He's a nice Major League option for us," GM Neal Huntington told Jenifer Langosch of "He can play second, short and third as a backup man or potentially as a regular if one of our guys were to get hurt or if we were to make a move."

"He certainly is more than capable of hitting right-handed pitching and if we complement him with the right guy we could have a pretty good platoon there. For the immediate future, we think he supplies us with some quality Major League depth, and that's important."

There's no doubt that Vazquez is a super-utility man, although scouts think that shortstop is his natural position. In his career, he's played 247 games at short, 198 at the hot corner, and 143 at second, with 11 more games at first. Lately, he's been logging a lot of time at third, but that had more to do with injuries at Texas than anything else.

He's not a great range guy, according to Baseball Reference, and his lifetime fielding percentage is at the league norm. But after watching a parade of wanna-bes filling in at short when Jack Splat went down, the ability to pencil in a major-league caliber fielder on the lineup card sure looks like up to us.

Vazquez hasn't had a 400 at-bat season since his early years at San Diego, and has stepped up to the plate 300 times in both 2007 and 2008. His line last year, which was a career season, was .290/6/40; lifetime, he's .257/21/160.

His biggest problem is with his pitcher splits. During his career, he's hit a pretty solid .273 against righties, but just .195 against lefties. He continued the trend last year, with .310/.188 splits.

Still, he offers a nice bat off of the bench if John Russell can favorably match him up; he's generally overmatched against a LOOGY, or any southpaw, for that matter. He's spent most of his time at the top or bottom of the order. Vasquez's ability to hit righties could earn him a couple of shots at the two hole in the right situation; otherwise he'll hit eighth. Sounds like the current SS, no?

Also, perhaps as an unintended consequence, but probably not, his signing pretty much assures Neil Walker of another year at Indy, now that there's a veteran left handed bat that can step in at third if little LaRoche continues his freefall.

But there's more to him than his stats and versatility on the diamond. Vazquez, who's been around the major league block (Pittsburgh is his fifth team in eight years), brings a professional attitude and a little spark with him.

He had a telling interview with DK, in the article cited above. Vazquez first brought up the Roberto Clemente - Puerto Rican - Pittsburgh link, a connection that will never die as long as kids swat stuffed socks with broomsticks on the Island and look to their heroes for inspiration. Never underestimate the staying power of a baseball legend.

He then told Kovacevic that he takes his role seriously: "Look, I've been a utility guy for five or six years now, and I'm a guy who can play any position, from first to third," he said.

"If a guy goes down for a month or two, I can perform for you there. If I go out there for just a couple days to take the place of a guy who's struggling, maybe I'll open that player's eyes. Maybe I'll show him what he should be doing." And the Lord knows this squad can use an old head to show the way.

Here's a tale that Wikipedia tells of him from last season:

On July 29, after his third error of the game allowed the Seattle to take a 10-9 lead in the top of the 9th, Vazquez doubled to right-center field off Mariners closer J. J. Putz, just out of Ichiro's reach, to drive in the tying and winning runs.

In a postgame interview, broadcast over the stadium speakers, Vazquez thanked all the fans that were cheering him on despite his three errors, and then told those who booed him to "Take that, *BLEEP*!" (Vazquez didn't cuss aloud, but lip-synced the bleep).

Now we don't recommend flipping a verbal bird at the fans as the best way to win friends. But it shows that he plays with heart and emotion, and if you remember how the Pirates showed all the spunk of George Romero zombies through the final few weeks of 2008, Vazquez should provide a welcome sparkplug to a team badly in need of a jolt.

And hey, with Vazquez on the roster, wouldn't it be sweet if Dirt Dog signed on for a return engagement? With a middle infielder inked, DM is a perfect piece of the bench again. The ball may not be much better, but it sure would keep the summer interesting.

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