Will Cleveland Re-sign Scott Kazmir?

After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?

Some gambles pay off.

The decision last winter by Chris Antonetti to sign Scott Kazmir turned out to be one such move. At the time, it was more of a head scratcher and was largely overlooked. Kazmir instead pitched like a player deserving of votes for Comeback Player of the Year.

While pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League at the end of 2012, Kazmir’s manager Edwin Rodriguez, now of the Akron Aeros, encouraged Cleveland to scout the former Major League starter. Kazmir’s velocity and control had showed signs of marked improvement, compared to his most recent efforts at the big league level.

Kazmir had not pitched in the Majors or the Minors during the 2012 season. He appeared instead with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Independent League over the summer. His numbers there were hardly overwhelming – he had a 3-6 record in 14 starts, logged 64 innings on the mound, and had a 5.34 ERA and 1.67 WHIP.

In December, Antonetti brought Kazmir into the Indians organization on a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training. The low risk move would cost the Indians $1 million if he joined the club in Cleveland.

Just one year later, Kazmir will be a key player of interest to the Cleveland Indians and potentially several other ball clubs as teams turn towards shaping their rosters for 2014. It has been a triumphant return to the Major Leagues for a player who was out of professional baseball entirely.

The road traveled has hardly been conventional for the once-heralded pitcher.

Kazmir made a meteoric rise to the big leagues back in 2004 as a 20-year-old rookie with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was a former first round draft pick of the New York Mets in 2002 who was traded to Tampa just two years later. He made eight appearances with the Devil Rays after the trade and struck out 41 batters in 33 1/3 innings.

The next season he became a full-time contributor to the Rays pitching staff, making 32 starts and compiling a 10-9 record with a 3.77 ERA. He finished fourth in the American League in strikeouts and allowed the second fewest home runs per nine innings by a starter, despite allowing an MLB-high 100 walks on the year.

By 2006, he was a first time All-Star, overcoming a rocky Opening Day start for the Devil Rays in Baltimore where he allowed six earned runs on eight hits in four innings and served up three long balls. His season ended prematurely at the end of August, but he still finished 10-8 on the year with a 3.24 ERA.

Kazmir eclipsed the 200 inning mark for the first time in 2007, when he finished with a 13-9 record and a 3.48 ERA. He was second in all of baseball in starts (34), strikeouts (239), and strikeouts per nine innings (10.41). His 89 walks were third-highest in the American League.

In May of 2008, he signed a four-year contract extension with a guaranteed $28.5 million despite starting the season on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He earned his second AL All-Star appearance that season and posted a 12-8 mark with a 3.49 ERA. The renamed Rays won their first ever AL East crown and reached the World Series. He started Game 1 and Game 5, but the Rays lost in five to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Kazmir was not the same pitcher the next season. He had a record of 8-7, but in 20 starts had tallied a 5.92 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Prior to the waivers trade deadline at the end of August, he was dealt from the Rays to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The change of scenery seemed to help, as he was heading back to the postseason with a 2-2 mark with a 1.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in his six starts for the Angels at the end of the regular season.

The postseason, however, did not go as well, as his earlier season numbers returned. He allowed ten runs, nine earned, in ten and two-thirds innings against Boston and New York in three appearances. Control was an issue, as he walked eight and struck out four.

In 2010, Kazmir was a career-worst 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 28 starts. He continued to average more than a baserunner and a half per inning and was striking out batters at the worst pace of his career (6.4 strikeouts per nine innings). He fought through injuries, which led to mechanical adjustments and lost velocity.

By the beginning of the 2011 season, his fastball was nearly ten miles per hour slower than his peak as a Ray. With a mid-80’s fastball, Kazmir was rocked in his season debut for the Angels against the Kansas City Royals. He retired as many batters (5) as crossed home plate. He was rattled, walking two and hitting two more, and was charged with a balk in just one and two-thirds innings. The Angels sent him to the disabled list, and after five unsuccessful rehabilitation starts at Triple-A (all losses), he was released at 27.

Kazmir declined offers to join other teams and instead elected to return home and start over in an attempt to rebuild his career.

The lefty, who will turn 30 in January, will get some attention on the free agent market after making 29 starts for Cleveland in 2013. After winning the number five starter job out of Spring Training, he missed the first few weeks of the season with a strained rib cage muscle. He was still able to surpass the 150 innings pitched mark for the fifth time in his career. He earned a 10-9 record with a 4.04 ERA.

He fared better at home in Progressive Field than on the road. He averaged nearly five strikeouts per every one walk there. He finished 7-2 with a 3.86 ERA on the shores of Lake Erie.

Left-handed hitters batted .226 against Kazmir. He walked just six of the 175 batters he faced from the left side.

In September, he amassed 43 strikeouts and just four walks in his final 28 innings. He gave the Indians a 3-2 record and a 2.57 ERA. In a push for the postseason again, Kazmir stood strongly on the mound.

With 12 strikeouts in six innings in his September 6th start against the New York Mets, he reached a dozen Ks in a game for the first time since striking out 13 in eight innings on August 25th, 2007, against the Oakland A’s. His four games with double-digit strikeout totals this season was his highest since that 2007 season, when he had six outings of ten strikeouts or more. In two of those four starts, he did not walk a batter and he walked just three in total in those four outings.

Kazmir would be the cheaper and possibly the easier of the Indians’ two free agent starting pitchers to bring back.

The Indians will have Justin Masterson back in the starting rotation, presumably with Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber. Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco remain internal options to join the rotation if either or both of Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez do not resign for 2014.

Kazmir brings something different to the rotation than any of the aforementioned pitchers. He is a left-handed starting pitcher, something that the Indians lack organizationally.

This season, he saw his velocity reach an average that rivaled his rookie season of nearly a decade ago. He is entering the prime of his career and is still young in the game of baseball, despite just two years ago it appearing as though his baseball days were over.

He showed an ability to throw first pitch strikes and to pound the strike zone. He racked up more than a strikeout per inning while significantly reducing his walk rate. He walked more than two batters in a game just six times.

In two separate outings of seven innings or more, he allowed just one base hit. In a pair of six inning efforts, he gave up just two hits each. In 16 separate starts, he pitched five innings or more and gave up two runs or less.

Even with that said, teams may balk at the notion of paying Kazmir big bucks this offseason or handing him a significant, multi-year commitment based on just 150 or so innings of success this season. Kazmir had difficulties working late into games – he completed the sixth inning in just 15 of his 29 starts (51.7%). However, in just two of those 15 starts did Kazmir allow more than two earned runs.

Kazmir is an unknown looking forward, especially because of his past. The Indians handled him gingerly this season, trying to maximize what he gave the club on the mound while not knowing for sure how his body would hold up with such an extensive work load after the lengthy time away. On a handful of occasions, the Indians bumped him back a day or two in the rotation to provide him additional rest while struggling through dead arm periods.

He may be worthy of another gamble during the offseason, but given his prior history, it is tough to imagine a contract of significant length or value being given to him at this point in time, even though his strong play may have positioned him as one of the top 15 or so starting pitchers available in free agency this winter. A contract in length and value similar to that of Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano (two years, $12.75 million) may be the low end of the ball park figure, with as much as $8 million per year not being out of the question.

Kazmir has indicated that he would like to return to Cleveland, and the Indians have indicated that he remains on their radar. If the market does not dictate an unreasonable price for Kazmir, there is a good chance he could be pitching again in the back end of the Cleveland rotation next season.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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