Sink or Swim Time—Kazmir Looks to Breakout, Not Breakdown
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the Spring Invitees with a chance to make the Tribe’s Opening Day roster.
By Steve Eby
Think back to Carlos Baerga, circa 1996.
The Tribe second baseman was only a year removed from an All-Star campaign that helped lead his team to a World Series appearance. He was a cog in the mighty Indians batting order—hitting third in arguably the most feared lineups of the steroid-infested 1990’s. He was the toast of the town, a true budding superstar who had seen more success by his mid-20’s than most baseball players see in their entire lifetime.
Then it stopped.
Baerga stopped hitting and stopped driving in runs. He stopped being a consistent contributor and was immediately traded away to the New York Mets. He never regained his star status with the Mets and was out of Major League baseball four years later. He played for a Korean team in 2001 before catching back on with the Boston Red Sox in 2002.
Now think back to Scott Kazmir, circa 2009.
Just like Baerga, the Rays ace was only one year removed from an All-Star campaign that helped his team to a World Series appearance. He was a cog in the mighty Rays pitching staff—sitting as the number two pitcher in a deep rotation that included James Shields, Matt Garza and David Price. He was one of the most popular players in St. Petersburg and was already one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
Then…just like Baerga…it stopped too.
For basically unknown reasons, Kazmir was smacked around in 2009, posting a 5.92 ERA for the defending American League Champs before they traded him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that summer. He finished the season strong with the Angels, but then struggled again in 2010 by losing 15 games with an ERA of 5.94. Kazmir got bit by the injury bug, missing all but one game of 2011 and giving up five earned runs in his only 1.2 innings of work for the season. Kazmir, just like Baerga, was out of the Major Leagues the next season.
Kazmir’s velocity had bottomed out at 82 MPH in 2011. It was a far cry from the young man who consistently fired fastballs in the low to mid 90’s just a few years before. He struggled mightily in the minor leagues as he was rehabilitating his injuries, going 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA before the Angels released him. Kazmir knew something was wrong and was determined to fix it before trying his hand at the Major League level again.
“I didn’t know how to fix it,” Kazmir said in a Mark Hale article from the New York Post. “As soon as I got released, I knew that, OK, if I’m coming back, I’m going to make sure I’m coming back when I want to, at my pace. I’m not just going to ‘OK, as soon as I get released, let’s sign back with some other team.’ I didn’t think it was going to get better that way.”
Kazmir hooked on with an independent team in the Atlantic League in 2012; the Sugar Land Skeeters. Kazmir was facing mostly young players who were either rebounding from injuries and were cut from Major League clubs or were making one last-ditch effort to get noticed and picked up by an organization. Kazmir was not the only recognizable name in the dugout, however, as a 50-year old Roger Clemens tried his hand at pitching again and former Major League All-Star Gary Gaetti served as the Skeeters manager.
Kazmir struggled through his time in the Atlantic League, going 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA in his 14 starts. Though his numbers remained unimpressive, the summer was time well spent according to his manager.
“I’m really proud of him for sticking it out this season and I think he learned a lot about himself,” Gaetti said in an article from the Skeeters team website. “He has definitely worked hard and deserves to be back with a Major League organization.”
After the season, Kazmir signed on with the Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League in November and his numbers improved slightly. Kazmir struck out 27 batters in 22.2 innings, the first time that he had struck out more than a batter an inning (in any league) since 2008. His velocity increased and the Indians decided to take a chance on the former star.
Kazmir signed a minor league contract with the Tribe on December 21, as the lefthander will try for another shot at the Big Leagues during Spring Training. The Indians brass liked what they saw in Kazmir, as the now 29-year-old continues to gain back his old form.
“This winter, we saw an uptick in his stuff, both his fastball velocity and the sharpness of his secondary stuff,” Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti said in the Hale article.
It is the secondary stuff that Antonetti speaks of that could make or break his chances of making the ball club. Since his implosion after 2008, Kazmir has learned to become more of a finesse pitcher as his velocity dipped lower and lower. He has started to throw both a curveball and a changeup—two pitches that were never really in the power-pitcher’s arsenal.
Kazmir will use his new repertoire, as well as his rebounding velocity, to try and make the Indians staff as a back-end starter or even possibly as a long reliever. The Indians seem set on going with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers as their front three, but are non-committal on their final two starting pitchers.
“You have a cast of young guys,” Tribe Manager Terry Francona said. “(Trevor) Bauer, (Zack) McAllister, (Corey) Kluber or (Carlos) Carrasco coming back from his Tommy John (surgery)…and there’s going to be a lot of other names like Scott Kazmir.”
Another name that was recently added that Kazmir will have to battle against is former Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. “Dice-K” signed a similar minor league deal as Kazmir did on February 10 and may have a leg up as a former “Francona Guy” when he was with Boston. So while it would seem that Kazmir is certainly in the discussion, it definitely is not a guarantee that he would make the team and the Indians are not foolish enough to just hand a job over to the man who has a 5.54 ERA in his last 55 MLB starts.
“We certainly want (whoever wins the job) to earn their spot in the rotation,” Francona said. “They need to knock the door down and let their pitching say ‘hey, I deserve to be in this rotation.’”
While he surely would need to ‘wow’ the Indians in Arizona to earn a spot, Kazmir has already made an impression on his new manager.
“Scott Kazmir is a guy to keep an eye on,” Francona added. “Everybody’s seen him pitch when he came up with Tampa and this kid had electric stuff. He pitched in Winter Ball and his velocity is back up at probably 92-93. That’s not the end-all, be-all, but that’s certainly an indication that this kid might have another run inside of him—which would be really exciting—because he was filthy.”
It definitely would be exciting to see Kazmir get another crack at the Major Leagues because of how filthy he actually was. Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts in 2007 with 239, was an All-Star in 2006 and 2008, and should still be in his prime at only 29 years old. He would give the Indians a veteran starter with postseason experience and would also give the Tribe a lefthander in a rotation that basically has only right handed options.
“Whether it’s righty or lefty, I’d rather have the best pitcher,” Francona said. “So often when I was a younger manager, I kept saying, ‘I have to have a lefty out of the bullpen,’ or I wanted a left handed starter to sandwich into our rotation. Now, I’d rather have the better pitcher. If there’s five right handers and they’re better—I want the better pitcher.”
There’s no doubt that Kazmir has the talent to be one of the five best pitchers on the Indians staff, but there is also no doubt that it is questionable whether he ever finds that talent again. Kazmir seems to have no doubts, however.
“I think I can be one of the best pitchers in the game,” Kazmir said in the Hale article. “Hands down. I definitely believe that.”
He has walked the walk before, so it’s certainly not impossible that he could do it again. It may not be all that likely and it is definitely not a guarantee that Kazmir will regain the form that made him one of baseball’s shining young stars, but it was certainly worth the low risk that the Indians are taking on a pitcher who could potentially give such high rewards.
“I’m gonna keep tuning myself and I’m gonna be one of the best pitchers in the game,” he says to Hale. “I don’t know when, but it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen.”
Kazmir could be the tsunami-sized impact player that turns the tide back in the Indians direction, but the Indians and their fans also need to paddle carefully. After all, Carlos Baerga’s career sank like a stone and Kazmir is just trying to remember how to swim.
Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com