In One Year, Kazmir Has Gone From Bottom, Back to Top

One year ago, the idea that Scott Kazmir could be a viable Major League Baseball player again was laughable. To say that he could be top-to-middle-of-of-the-rotation-hurler in the big leagues was the stuff of dreams. This season, Kazmir is making dreams come true–both his, along with the fans and members of the Cleveland Indians.

Kazmir has come out of nowhere to become one of Cleveland’s most consistent starting pitchers this year. At 6-4, with a 3.96 ERA, the left-hander could probably be considered the club’s third starter, behind Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber.

That is an amazing feat considering, last year at this time, the 29-year-old was struggling to retire hitters in the independent Atlantic Coast League. On July 7, 2012, Kazmir signed with the Sugarland Skeeters and proceeded to go 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. If his career Major League career was on life support before, it sure seemed dead at that point.

“We’re proud of him,” Indians manager Terry Francona said after Kazmir’s most recent start on Wednesday. “I think he felt he had a lot to prove and he’s doing that. He’s got a lot of baseball left in him.”

Then, as if with one last gasp, Kazmir clung to one last bit of baseball life. In November, he went to the Puerto Rican Winter League. In 23 innings with the Gigantes de Carolina, he struck out 27 batters and posted a 4.37 ERA. Numbers, of course, do not tell the whole story of a player. What Tribe management most liked was the fact that Kazmir’s velocity found its way back to the mid-90s. His fastball had life on it resembling what it was when he was a highly-touted young player with Tampa Bay.

Even though the Indians took a flyer on the former first-round draft pick, his chances at making the big league roster were slim. He had not pitched in the majors since 2011, when he was rocked for five earned runs in 1 and 2/3 innings while with the Angels. He had not put together a strong season since 2008.

However, the minor league deal and invite to spring training was Kazmir’s foot in the door. From the get-go of the Cactus League campaign, the surprises with Kazmir began. He had a strong preseason. Sorely needing a lefty in the rotation, the Indians shocked many in the game and decided to add Kazmir to the starting 5.

Things got off to a rocky start in the veteran’s comeback trail. He began the year on the disabled list. When he did start pitching, he more resembled the hurler that flamed out than the quality starter he was from 2005-2008. After a dismal start on June 15, Kazmir stood at 3-4 with a less-than-stellar 5.89 ERA. The talk around Cleveland was that it might be time to cut bait and call the experiment a failure.

Just like that, however, it seemed the lights went on. In seven starts since, Kazmir has pitched like an ace. He has not allowed more than three runs in any of those starts. He is 3-0 in that stretch due to a lack of run support. He has not allowed an earned run is his past two trips to the hill, covering 14 innings. That includes Wednesday’s outstanding, eight-inning, one unearned run, one-hit performance in Seattle. It was his best start of the year as he seems to be getting strong. The ERA has come down by nearly two runs per games since he started looking like the 2006 and 2008 All-Star version of himself.

Any prior thoughts of sending Kazmir away has now vanished. He has become one of Cleveland’s most important players and quite possibly its best starter. Talk now is about bringing Kazmir back for another season, or more – not bad for a guy who was a long-shot to even make the team, at best.

It is probably too soon for either side to talk extension. The Indians would be foolish to give Kazmir a multi-year deal right now because this could be a seven-game mirage. Giving him a multiple-year contract now would backfire big time were he to fall back to his ways of earlier in the year or get rocked by injury as he was near the end of his prior big league time.

By the same token, Kazmir would not be wise to talk extension because this could be just the beginning. If he is indeed back to his old form, or better, he could really cash in during the offseason. A left-handed starter is hard enough to find. To land one with quality numbers is something most Major League teams only dream of. His agent could carry double-digit wins and sub-4.00 ERA into a negotiating room and come away with a 3-5 year deal north of $8 million per season. Those salary figures would only be that low due to his former injury problems.

While it would be nice to see the Indians bring Kazmir back, the team’s history of paying that kind of money could make him one-and-done. Of course, this may be a new era of Tribe baseball. The team showed a willingness to spend last offseason and could up the ante for a squad that seems poised to be good for at least a few years. Kazmir, likewise, could be willing to give a discount to the team that gave him new baseball life.

For now, however, it is all about the next two months. The Indians are keeping the Tigers within reach in the AL Central Division race. If Kazmir can continue dealing the way he has, it solidifies the top of the rotation with Masterson and Kluber being strong starters to this point. He could be one of the top-five keys to getting Cleveland to October baseball for the first time since 2007, when Kazmir’s career was still young.

Kazmir is surely writing a story that many a Hollywood executive would love to get their hands on. The roll he is on does not seem to be coming to an end soon. One year after struggling against subpar competition, Kazmir could be throwing against the game’s best high-pressure, postseason-implication September baseball games. It is no longer laughable to think about, but rather a distinct possibility.

Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

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