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Bernie On The Scene: Yankees Insurance Policy

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners.

"El Chato." That's the nickname of a Yankees insurance policy. El Chato means small and chunky. Translated further, it probably is closer to stocky than chunky. And that's what his friends and teammates call first baseman Jorge Vazquez. El Chato. He's been El Chato since childhood.

There really isn't anything small about Vazquez. Stocky? You bet.
Vazquez is a 5-foot-11, 225-pound native of Culiacan, Mexico. He's a right-handed hitting power machine that the Yankees have stashed at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Vazquez has hit some of the longest and most majestic home runs seen by some very seasoned scouts and baseball front office personnel. Will the Yankees give him a chance to show that power at the big league level? That's what this profile is about.

The Yankees have first base covered for years with the presence of Mark Teixeira, one of the game's finest hitters. For this year at least, Nick Swisher could play first base if need be, provided he is healthy. Prior to this season, the Yankees had Nick Johnson and Juan Miranda as protection in the event Teixeira got hurt. Neither is with the organization in 2011. Now the depth chart should list Vazquez right behind Swisher if there is a need for an emergency at first base.

The Yankees signed Vazquez as an international free agent in 2008. The signing followed a 10-year career as a power-hitting first baseman (occasional third baseman) in the Mexican League. For clarification purposes, most people consider the Mexican League to be the equivalent of Triple-A. The Mexican League plays quality baseball and MLB organizations closely follow the progress of Mexican League players. Vazquez has been hitting home runs in ballparks across Mexico and in minor league parks in the United States ever since.

Overall in his professional career, Vazquez has shown that he can hit. Hitting is not the issue. It's defense that probably keeps Vazquez from being called to the major leagues. More about that later.

In his professional career to date, Vazquez has the following record: (including Mexican League baseball)

722 games played, 2,692 at-bats, .315/177/595 153:592 BB:K.

There have been some important moments in Vazquez's American baseball career. For example, Vazquez missed the beginning of the 2010 season with an appendectomy. It set him back, but it didn't totally stall his career. As a matter of fact, in 2011, Vazquez won the Most Valuable Player award in the Caribbean Series as he carried his Mexican team to victory in the winter tournament. Of course he also made the Series All-Star team as well.

The Mexican League has a shorter regular season than the minor leagues in American baseball. A total of 104 games are played beginning in mid-March. That's why it's so significant that Vazquez hit 33 home runs in 2005. He followed that with 31, 17 and 18 in the subsequent years before he was signed by New York.

Vazquez has been invited to attend spring training with the Yankees in both 2010 and 2011. He raised some eyebrows on both occasions by hitting mammoth home runs. In fact, Vazquez has been known to hit baseballs totally out of ballparks. While at spring training, he hit a ball over the batter's eye in dead center field while playing at George Steinbrenner Stadium in Tampa. One legend speaks of Vazquez hitting a ball in a Mexican League game that went left of the batter's eye, over a fence, over a second fence, and over a few cars with the ball finally landing on the roof of a bus. True? Who knows? But certainly Vazquez has the power to make such a legend sound believable. Legends are created by the type of power in Vazquez's bat.

His spring training numbers playing as a Yankee prospect in 2010 and 2011 are as follows:

2010 - 15 games, 20 at-bats, .200/0/3 with 0:5 BB:K
2011 - 20 games, 34 at-bats, .412/3/8 with 1:11 BB:K

At the time Jorge Vazquez signed with New York, the Rangers and Orioles were interested in his power-hitting abilities, but the Yankees were his choice. He has indicated over and over that he wants a chance to prove his ability and worth to the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees are his team and that's where Vazquez wants to play. But there are problems.

First and foremost, Vazquez has only one outstanding tool - power. Maybe he is beginning to show that he can hit for average as well, but his overall hitting is not what people talk about. Scouts evaluate him as a power hitter. While power is an important attribute, any potential suitors for his services seem convinced he is associated permanently with the American League. Vazquez is very much a designated hitter. At the plate, he has to improve his pitch selection and his overall contact to be considered an option for a big league role. His history indicates too many strikeouts and not enough walks to be considered a consistent high quality, professional major league hitter. However, during his 2011 season at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre he has shown improvement in both categories. Like many power hitters, he crushes fastballs. He has to learn how to recognize and hit off-speed breaking pitches much more proficiently. But that, too, is improving.

The real problem is that Vazquez has trouble playing defense. He has mammoth thighs and calves with an overall "super sized" lower body. His body shape and weight distribution restricts his movement around first base. His range is limited with slow feet, little overall athletic ability and unsure hands. It adds up to a picture of a poor defensive player. There were times in his Mexican League career when Vazquez played third base. That would really be out of the question in MLB for the same reasons he has difficulty at first base. Even though history has shown us that some less than efficient defenders have played first base, it seems fairly certain that to make a major league club, Vazquez will have to be a designated hitter and emergency first-base option. And he'll have to show consistent power to stick in the big leagues. But he can't stick if he doesn't get the chance.

So if Vazquez has all these shortcomings, why do I choose to use one of my columns to write about him? Because I don't think he should be, or can be ignored. Especially since the Yankees are having trouble scoring runs. Especially since they turned to a much-injured player like Eric Chavez and gave him a roster spot. But even as an aging veteran, Chavez is a very good fielder. As well as he plays defense and as much as he can hit, Chavez can't keep from getting hurt and landing on the disabled list. Then there's Andruw Jones. He's playing left field on occasion and he's serving as a designated hitter at times. Jones certainly doesn't bring a filled toolbox to the ballpark every night. At this point of his career, he's limited in what he's capable of providing. In fact, Jones' defensive game has slipped markedly. While Jones is limited, so is Vazquez. But at least Vazquez brings a resume of awesome raw power. Vazquez can hit the ball out of the park to right field as well as his pull side in Yankee Stadium and elsewhere in American League parks. He just lacks opportunity.

At Triple-A, Jesus Montero and Vazquez often are placed together in the lineup. Their personal goals and resulting situations are very similar in the Yankees' organization. They both have proven they can hit minor league pitching. They both need a shot. To date, they can't get it.

Last week I wrote of the plight of Montero. He's a power-hitting, high average hitter that still waits for a call from a club desperate for offense. Last week, I indicated that perhaps the Yankees feel Montero, limited defensively behind the plate, is too young to be a designated hitter. Perhaps. But Jorge Vazquez isn't too young. He's 29 years old and he really has little further development to complete in minor league baseball. It's unlikely his defense will improve. But, it is likely he can win a game with a home run or a long blast to the gap. He can do it in New York or he can do it for another club.

Can the Yankees get much needed pitching help by trading Vazquez? Can they get a backup infielder or another piece for their outfield so they don't have to rely on Jones or Chris Dickerson? With pitcher and setup man Rafael Soriano now injured, another critical piece to the Yankees' pitching puzzle is in jeopardy. One would think the front office would want to shore up the pitching and the bench as May turns to June. Can Vazquez and/or Montero fetch the help the Yankees need to create some daylight between them and their eastern division rivals as the season moves along?

I really believe there is at least one club in the American League that would welcome the opportunity to give a hitter like Jorge Vazquez a chance. Home runs are hard to find. Perhaps the A's or the Angels would be interested. They could both use a big bat in the lineup; so could Cleveland, Tampa, Toronto and Detroit. Let's face it - we're certainly not seeing too much in the way of offense coming from most major league clubs. This would be a good time to shore up the run production. Each of the teams listed above has at least one expendable pitcher to help the Yankees. But really, maybe nobody wants to help the Yankees. That could be one impediment standing in the way of a trade to the American League. For both Montero and Vazquez.

As of this writing, Vazquez has compiled the following line against International League pitching:

166 plate appearances, .301/17/43 and 12:48 BB:K

Of equal importance is the fact he's hitting equally well against both right and left-handed pitching.

His minor league statistics and his ability to hit the ball out of the park motivated me to share my enthusiasm for him with my readers. He's kind of a cult hero among Mexican League fans because of his size, his personality and his ability to make a baseball disappear into the night. He can probably have a similar impact with a big league club. However, not unlike Montero, Vazquez needs a chance. He needs a general manager curious enough to want to find out how awesome power in the Mexican League and the International League translates to major league baseball. He needs a general manager willing to provide an opportunity and stick with him until he proves the front office right or wrong.

I'm curious. I'm waiting. Just like I'm curious and waiting to find out about Montero. "El Chato" may not really be too small after all. Or too chunky. Or too stocky. He's too strong and too powerful to get lost and linger much longer. Lost as an insurance policy for a club that is set at the corners for years. Lost with a club that isn't scoring runs and needs to find offense somewhere.

There are numerous times in life when insurance policies are paid for but never used. Maybe that's the plan of the Yankees' front office. Have the insurance available, but hope it never has to be used.

Vazquez is a phone call away. He and Jesus Montero await the call that could give them the chance to prove they belong. I'm not sure it'll ever happen for Vazquez. The shelf life of baseball insurance is not indefinite. After all, Vazquez is now entering his peak performance years. That's when his premiums are the highest and the payout might be the greatest.

It might not be very long until the return on the insurance "El Chato" provides may diminish in value and the club will shop around for different protection. That's what happens with some insurance policies. Even with baseball insurance.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.