Poised for a career year

Confident Vazquez poised for big year

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Javier Vazquez could become Major League Baseball royalty on the mound.

With strong command of four electric pitches, a moving fastball in the low- to mid-90s and a tenacious work ethic, the affable right-hander has the intangibles that often add up to an offseason Cy Young presentation. So, why has Vazquez produced a 59-62 record and 4.22 ERA over the past five seasons, while pitching for four different teams, and a 36-37 mark with a 4.73 ERA in the past three?

Vazquez has been searching for answers to that particular question since a 2003 season that could have far surpassed his 13-12 ledger with a little run support. But it's also a dilemma all parties involved believe could be solved in the upcoming 2007 campaign.

For the first time since spending 2002 and '03 with the Montreal Expos, Vazquez will be starting a year with the same team for whom he finished the previous campaign. Vazquez struggled to find the precise words in describing this unappreciated luxury, but his proverbial light went on upon hearing the mention of comfort zone.

"Those are the words," said Vazquez with a smile. "I know this is a big year for me because being with a team for the second year in a row is a big advantage. Hopefully, it helps me having the same catcher two years in a row and playing for [manager] Ozzie [Guillen] and Coop [pitching coach Don Cooper] two years in a row.

"Sometimes you get to a point where you like a place and you want to stay there. That's what has happened right now for me in Chicago."

It was back in 1998 when Vazquez debuted for the Expos with a 5-15 record and 6.06 ERA over 32 starts. By the 2001 season, Vazquez was cruising through National League hitters with a 16-11 record, a 3.42 ERA, 208 strikeouts and only 44 walks in 223 2/3 innings.

His best season actually might have come in '03, when he fanned 241 and yielded 198 hits over 230 2/3 dazzling innings. But then the shuffling from team to team began, and the movement was not as upward as Vazquez would have liked.

The trade from Montreal to the New York Yankees in 2004 was expected, and Vazquez requested a trade after his 11-15 showing for the Diamondbacks in 2005 in order to be closer to his wife and two children. That trade demand placed Vazquez in Chicago and was deemed by some as an essential deal to propel the White Sox to their second consecutive World Series title.

In a 2006 season when none of the White Sox five high-quality starters lived up to their expectations from the season's start to finish, Vazquez finished at 11-12 with an uncharacteristically high 4.84 ERA. Then, there was the inexplicable troubles that plagued Vazquez the third time through the opposition's batting order.

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His ERA jumped to 7.39 in the fifth inning of his starts, 10.33 in the sixth inning, 9.58 in the seventh and 6.75 in the eighth. To Vazquez's credit, he never shied away from the countless media inquiries or fan critiques stemming from the quirk.

That patience shown by one of the more likeable players in the White Sox clubhouse won't extend to 2007 where this specific question is concerned.

"Personally, right now, this is the last time I'm going to talk about it," said Vazquez in a recent 10-minute interview discussing his decade in the game, when asked specifically about the mid-game struggles. "I believe in myself and I believe in my ability and that's it.

"I hope I don't have to hear it again. Throughout my career, I never have been a guy who someone says he can't throw this inning. I've always been able to go along in the game. I've always been better late in the game."

Cooper believes flaws in Vazquez's delivery caused the mid-to-late-game problems, as the pitch execution decreased when the pitch count increased. But Vazquez's Spring Training participation in the World Baseball Classic with Puerto Rico and a 6-3 start through May held back Cooper in making those slight corrections.

From the second half of last season on, following the implementation of these changes, Cooper's confidence has soared where Vazquez is concerned.

"He wasn't tall, he wasn't back and he wasn't closed," said Cooper of the delivery problems for Vazquez. "Those are absolutes as far as mechanics. Now, he's much better in those areas, and he always has had the physical stuff.

"Javy is ready, in great shape, and prepared physically and mentally. I feel as good about Javy as I ever have."

Moving to the left side of the pitching rubber, as suggested by Cooper, was labeled by Vazquez as the "biggest change I've made throughout my years." The movement helped Vazquez get on top of the ball and locate his pitches better.

Aside from these aforementioned adjustments, Vazquez has been at a loss to explain his inability to reach elite status. And it's not that there haven't been flashes of recent brilliance.

In a masterful start at Toronto's Rogers Centre on Aug. 5, Vazquez mesmerized the Blue Jays' potent attack over eight innings, giving up two hits and striking out 13. He inflicted the same damage upon the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sept. 5, losing a 1-0 decision despite his three-hit, 11-strikeout performance.

Yet, Vazquez finished under .500 for the fourth time in his career. Judging by the opinion from those in the know, a more efficient Vazquez in familiar environs could see a precipitous rise in the win column.

"There will come a time where he puts it together, and if he puts it together and gets on a roll, he could win a Cy Young," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams. "I don't think there's any doubt he's got some of the best stuff in the league."

"I make a prediction this is going to be one of Javy's best years," Guillen added. "This year he will prove to people how good he is."

A quick reminder from Williams, and Vazquez signals out his consistency as a starter. Since 2000, his 1,518 2/3 innings pitched and 1,350 strikeouts rank Vazquez fourth in all of baseball in both categories. He is the only active pitcher to have recorded 10 wins, 30 starts and 150 strikeouts in each of the past seven seasons.

Steady, with a 100-105 career record and 4.34 ERA, but not spectacular. That steadiness is just not good enough for Vazquez.

At 30 years old, in his 10th season overall and second in Chicago, he feels poised for greatness.

"There are a lot of pitchers that get better at 33 or 34, but I don't plan on waiting that long," said Vazquez with a laugh. "But I'm just 30 and still learning.

"I know I'm going to be much better. I know I can do it because I've already done it. I have the stuff to be a staff ace."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.