Scott Kazmir: Dark Horse Oakland Ace, or Ill-Advised Gamble?

This time last year, the idea that Scott Kazmir would again be the top starter on a major league staff (or anything close to it) was flat out laughable. Going into the 2013 season, the last time that Kazmir had shown his face on a major league mound was in April of 2011, when he was battered out of the second inning in his first and only start that season. A former top-rotation starter and strikeout artist for the Tampa Bay Rays, Kazmir hadn’t been an effective major league starter since, really, 2008. When he put up an embarrassing 17.02 ERA in five AAA starts after being sent down in 2011, the Angels finally released him, and he appeared to be completely done at the tender age of 27.

As we enter the 2014 season, however, Kazmir’s career has undergone quite the turnaround. After reviving his career with the Cleveland Indians last year, Kazmir was handed a two-year, $22 million deal by the A’s in the offseason. With the loss of Bartolo Colon to free agency, the A’s have no clear number one starter in their rotation going into 2014. Will it be Jarrod Parker, who last year sandwiched two horrendous months in April and September around an ace-like summer? Will it be Sonny Gray, who has all of 77 major league innings (including last year’s postseason) under his belt? Will it be A.J. Griffin, who led the team in innings but also gave up a whopping 36 home runs? Or perhaps it will be Kazmir, who, as nutty as it would have seemed this time last season, could now realistically be the ace of a playoff contender in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.

As unbelievable as it may seem, Kazmir will just now be entering his age-30 season. Kazmir was taken by the Mets in the 2002 “Moneyball” draft, then was notoriously traded to the Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano at the 2004 trade deadline. To the surprise of exactly no one outside of the Mets front office, the trade didn’t turn out so well for the New York team. A hard-throwing lefty with a vicious slider, Kazmir quickly established himself as one of the premier strikeout artists in the American League. From 2005 to 2008, Kazmir won 45 games for Tampa Bay, struck out 742 batters in 689.2 innings (including a league-leading 239 in 2007), and led the Rays to the World Series in 2008.

The wheels came off in 2009, though, as Kazmir put up a gory 5.89 ERA in 20 starts with Tampa before being traded to the Angels. The trade was, on the surface, a cost-cutting move by the always-thrifty Rays (Kazmir was starting to get a bit too pricey in arbitration for Tampa Bay’s tastes), but it turned out later that the Rays probably dumped him because they knew storm clouds were on the horizon.

Even though Kazmir put up a 1.73 ERA in six starts down the stretch with the Angels, his velocity was down, his strikeout rate was in ominous decline, and he was still having problems with his control (bases on balls were Kazmir’s major problem in his years with the Rays). Sure enough, the warning signs turned into all-out disaster in 2010, and Kazmir suffered through one of the worst full pitching seasons you’ll ever see. In 28 miserable starts, Kazmir went 9-15 with a 5.89 ERA, with a career-low (by far) strikeout rate. The low point came in a start against the A’s in July of that year, when Angels manager Mike Scioscia left him on the mound to absorb a 13-run beating through five innings. When the Angels finally let him go the next season, he was seen largely as a mess beyond redemption, somewhat tragic considering his relatively young age.

After a full season in the Independent League in 2012, the Indians, desperate for starting pitching, threw Kazmir a “why not?” spring training invite on the off chance he had anything left. As it turned out, he did, and then some. Kazmir made some tweaks to clean up his delivery and showed up in Cleveland with his old velocity back. In 29 starts for the Indians, he won 10 games with a 4.04 ERA, struck out 162 batters in 158 innings, and helped lead the team to its first playoff berth in six years. In all, he was one of the best stories of the 2013 season.

With Kazmir’s spotty history, it’s hard to know exactly what the A’s are getting. Skeptics like to point out the small sample size of Kazmir’s comeback plus the fact that he looked totally done as a pitcher as recently as eleven months ago. Since they have to function under fairly strict payroll restrictions, the A’s are taking a significant risk by signing Kazmir to what amounts to $11 million per year for this season and next. If Kazmir stinks it up and reverts back to his 2010-11 form, the A’s are stuck with a gaping financial sinkhole, one they can scarcely afford in their quest to win the AL West on the cheap.

There are a few reasons to think that that won’t be the case. First, with Cleveland, Kazmir’s fastball was back up to its 2007-2008 velocity levels, when he was averaging 92 mph. When he struggled with the Angels, his fastball barely averaged out at 90 mph. Secondly, Kazmir saved his best work for the second half last season, putting up a 3.38 ERA in thirteen starts after the All-Star Break, while striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings.

Third, and perhaps most encouraging, Kazmir posted a career-low walk rate in 2013, and it was a career-low by a large margin. Even in Kazmir’s best years as a Ray, control had always been his bugaboo. In 2005 through 2008, despite his successes, he walked 4.1 batters per nine innings. When he was stinking it up in Los Angeles, needless to say, that only got worse. Last season, Kazmir walked a mere 2.7 batters per nine innings. That kind of improvement is, frankly, stunning, and I have a feeling that that newfound control was one of the major factors the Oakland front office took into consideration in making the decision to sign him.

Handing a pitcher like Kazmir two guaranteed years might seem like a risk on the face of it, especially for a low-payroll team like the A’s. However, in the context of this offseason, this might be a heist. Pitchers like Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas, Scott Feldman, and Ricky Nolasco were handed three- and four-year deals this winter, despite dubious results the past few years. Kazmir was as good or better than any of those pitchers last season and the A’s have less of a commitment to him.

If Kazmir maintains the gains in control and velocity that he demonstrated last year, and stays healthy (never a given), $22 million will be an absolute bargain in this market. Thus, in a move that is deliciously typical of the Billy Beane-era A’s, the team may have stolen a front line starter out from everyone’s noses.