Looking back at some of the comments I wrote when Javier Vazquez was first traded to the Braves, I realize that I might have been the biggest Vazquez apologist around. He'd been a chronic underperformer, and I had endless excuses for him: bad luck with balls in play, bad luck with home stadiums, bad luck with managers, bad luck with media. He never got along with Ozzie Guillen in Chicago. He never liked dealing with the media in New York. He was never comfortable so far away from his native Puerto Rico in Arizona. But underneath it all, there was an ace-caliber pitcher. And that pieces all fell into place for that ace to emerge in 2009: he got along fabulously with Bobby Cox, liked Atlanta, and even became a leader in the Braves' clubhouse while leading the pitching staff on the field.
He was his usual durable self, tossing 219 1/3 innings and missing nary a start, but what wasn't usual was the impressive improvement in his already-solid peripherals: he struck out nearly ten batters per nine while walking less than two, for an astounding 5.41 K/BB ratio (good for third in the majors behind Roy Halladay and Dan Haren, but Vazquez struck out nearly two batters per nine more than Halladay and one per nine more than Haren). His reliable presence took the pressure off of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, allowing them to be ace-caliber pitchers without having to be relied upon as #1 starters. Chipper Jones even talks about how much Vazquez helped Jair Jurrjens learn the "art" of pitching, since both have similarly broad arsenals.
There's been plenty of talk that Vazquez is the most likely of the Braves' six starters to be traded, but I struggle to see how the Braves could get better by doing so. Perhaps you could swap Vazquez for another one-year veteran rental who happens to hit instead of pitch, or perhaps you could trade him for a package of prospects, but neither of those seems to make much sense given the Braves' current position. The better question, perhaps, as posed by Bill Shanks over at Scout.com the other day, is whether the Braves ought to be talking extension with Javy. We know he's comfortable in Atlanta, and we know he fits in the Braves' clubhouse (sounds like Tim Hudson, huh?). I don't buy Shanks' suggestion that a two-year, $22 million offer is enough to get Vazquez's attention; after all, he was truly one of baseball's most valuable players in 2009. I think you'd be talking at least three years and $45 million, perhaps with a fourth-year option. (Wren will have to be careful not to insult Tim Hudson, though...what does it say if he signs Huddy for $27 million and then turns around and offers Vazquez twice that much?) Still, rather than trading him, the Braves should be thinking about re-upping him for a few more years to lock in the Hudson/Vazquez/Jurrjens/Hanson quartet. There isn't a whole lot of pitching at the upper levels of the minors, and a top-notch front four like that would give plenty of time for the Braves to develop the next wave of young pitching (Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Zeke Spruill, and Brett DeVall, to name a few). Oh, and it would probably bring a few playoff appearances too.
The bottom line: I can't name a contending team that has traded away its best pitcher, and there isn't a whole lot to indicate that Vazquez performed over his head in 2009. Maybe he's not a Cy Young candidate again next year, but he'll be durable and effective, which has a ton of value. Throw in his intangibles, and you've got a guy that the Braves should be looking to keep long-term, not deal away.