Yankees turn sights toward Pettitte after acquiring Vazquez

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2003

NEW YORK - Now that the New York Yankees have Javier Vazquez, they are likely to turn their attention to Andy Pettitte.

Vazquez became the latest starter in the Yankees' collection when New York acquired him from the Montreal Expos on Thursday for first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Juan Rivera and left-hander Randy Choate.

Vazquez joins a starting rotation that already includes Mike Mussina, Jose Contreras and Jeff Weaver, with Jon Lieber and free agent David Wells also possibilities. New York says re-signing Pettitte is its top offseason priority but negotiations with the left-hander, who also has talked with Houston, have not progressed much.

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Thursday's trade fills one of the voids in the rotation. It is contingent on all the players passing physicals, but Vazquez already is excited about becoming a part of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

''The Yankees are a winning team, and now I will see myself getting involved in the rivalry of that team with Boston,'' Vazquez told the radio station WPAB in his hometown of Ponce in Puerto Rico. ''The Yankees are a team that always wants to win, and what every ballplayer wants is to win.''

New York said it wouldn't comment on the deal until after the physicals, citing major league rules.

Just last Friday, the Red Sox completed a deal for Curt Schilling, who joins Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in Boston's rotation. Last season, the Red Sox battled the Yankees until the 11th inning of Game 7 of the AL championship series.

''I didn't think they were just going to sit there and stand pat,'' Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. ''With their resources and their ability to attract top talent, I knew they were going to spend it, and they're bringing in some good players. … We knew they were going to get someone. That's one of the reasons why it was important for us to kind of go out there first and try to build our club they way we want to.''

Vazquez fills one of the rotation slots that became uncertain with the retirement of Roger Clemens and the free-agent status of Pettitte and Wells. Vazquez went 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA for the Expos last season, ranking third in the NL in strikeouts with 241 in 230 2-3 innings.

''I think Vazquez is one of the better young pitchers in the game,'' Expos general manager Omar Minaya said. ''When he goes out there, he gives you everything.''

Vazquez threw 3,741 pitches, second in the majors behind Oakland's Barry Zito, who had 3,747.

Minaya had been talking with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman for more than a month.

''This trade started when Brian Cashman and I went out to dinner during the general managers' meeting,'' Minaya said. ''He'll be very popular in New York with so many Hispanic fans.''

Johnson, 25, has been a solid hitter with a keen eye for the strike zone, but he's been unusually brittle and could have difficulty staying healthy on the artificial turf in Montreal and San Juan - where the Expos likely will again play 22 games.

He has been on the disabled list in four straight seasons - he missed 61 games after breaking a hand while swinging a bat last season, strained his left wrist in 2002 and strained his left thumb in 2001. The year before, he was out the entire season with a strained muscle in his right hand.

When healthy, he's been productive - he hit .284 with 14 homers, 47 RBIs and a .422 on-base percentage.

Rivera, 25, hit .266 with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 173 at-bats and has a strong throwing arm, but was viewed as backup material by the Yankees.

Choate, 28, pitched only 3 2-3 innings over five relief appearances for the Yankees last season, compiling a 7.36 ERA. He went 3-5 with one save and a 3.91 ERA in 54 games at Triple-A Columbus.

Vazquez, eligible for salary arbitration, probably will get a raise to between $8 million and $9 million. He is eligible for free agency after next season, and the Yankees initially insisted they be given a 72-hour window to work out a long-term contract.

But the Expos didn't want to grant it and, ultimately, the Yankees felt comfortable they could work out a deal with Vazquez's agents, Sam and Seth Levinson.

Johnson is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this winter and is likely to have a salary between $1 million and $1.5 million; Rivera isn't yet eligible.

Montreal also faces a decision by Sunday whether to offer salary arbitration to star outfielder, Vladimir Guerrero, who became a free agent.

''This gives us flexibility in putting our team together for next year,'' Minaya said. ''It allows us the possibility of using some of the savings from Vazquez on some free agent players.''

In other Yankees news, Gary Sheffield took a physical Thursday, a step toward completing a $39 million, three-year deal, which will include about $15 million of deferred money.

Also, the Yankees have begun discussions that likely will lead to the departure of Gordon Blakeley, their senior vice president of baseball operations, who is based in Tampa, Fla. Mark Newman, Blakeley's predecessor, probably will reclaim his old job.