At this point in the offseason, the majority of player personnel moves go unnoticed. After all, most free agent signings are veterans looking for one last shot at glory or career journeymen added for depth. Every so often though, one of these deals stands out amongst the others. And on Tuesday, the Indians made one of those signings official.
Looking to add depth to the rotation, the Indians signed left-handed pitcher Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal with a non-roster invite to spring training. Wahoo’s on First’s very own Steve Kinsella has been pushing for this signing in staff email chains for weeks now, so kudos to him for being one step ahead of the Indians on this one. But, is there any chance this move actually works or will it be quickly forgotten about by Opening Day?
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I have a strange feeling this has the opportunity to be an overwhelming success. Yes, a lot has to go right for both Kazmir and the Indians, but when you take a look at the situation objectively there’s reason to believe this could be a steal.
For starters, this is a minor league deal, meaning that the Indians haven’t guaranteed Kazmir anything. If he wants a spot on the opening day roster he is going to have to pitch out of his mind during spring training. In that way it’s the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move. If it doesn’t work out, the team and Kazmir can simply part ways.
But can Kazmir regain the form that made him an All-Star? It’s certainly possible. Despite the fact that Kazmir debuted for the Rays back in 2004, he’s still only 28 years old; one year older than Justin Masterson and the same age as Ubaldo Jimenez. From that standpoint, Kazmir should just now be entering into his prime years. If not for the litany injuries he has had to endure since 2008, who knows where his career could have gone.
Unfortunately, elbow issues sprung up during spring training of 2008 and 2009 and dreailed what looked like a promising career. The primary reason for these issues could be directly correlated to the insane number of pitches Kazmir was throwing. In 2007, Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts with 237, and set new highs in both games started and innings pitched; meanwhile, he was below average in terms of his walk rate, allowing just over four walks per nine innings during that span. It all added up to him throwing 3608 pitches in ’07. Compounding things further, Kazmir’s pitches per plate appearance rose from an already shaky 4.05 in ’07 to 4.28 in ’08, among the MLB’s worst. All of this translates to a lot of pitches with very little rest.
So it’s no surprise that he broke down as early as he did. As is usually the case when injuries occur, Kazmir began compensating with mechanical changes, both intentional and unintentional, and an even more rigorous training regimen. The end result was shoulder issues that ultimately derailed his 2010 season with the Angels and eventually led to control problems and a substantial loss of velocity, thus eliminating his effectiveness. Kazmir’s already shaky walk rate increased to 4.3 BB/9 from ’09-’11 and his strikeout rate plummeted from 10 K/9 to 6.3. He was ultimately released and spent all of 2012 playing for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League.
Now it appears Kazmir is healthy for the first time in a long time. In five starts in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Kazmir went 0-2 with a 4.37 ERA, but had a 27/8 strikeout to walk ratio and allowed only one home run in 22 and 2/3 innings. More importantly, Kazmir’s velocity was once again registering between 90 and 94 mph—as opposed to the mid-80’s he was registering in tryouts prior to the 2012 season.
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Has Kazmir found his mojo? With time and proper recovery from lingering elbow and shoulder injuries, is Kazmir poised to make an epic return to to the Majors? It’s in play. While the Puerto Rican League is not the majors, it’s an encouraging sign from a pitcher who had seemed to of lost both his skill set and his confidence. If he has regained any semblance of the form that made him the dominant force that went 47-37 with a 3.62 ERA , 124 ERA+, and strikeout ratio of close to 10 K/9 from ’04-’08, then the Indians have themselves a gem.
But—and this is a huge but—if Kazmir makes this team out of spring training as a fourth or fifth starter Terry Francona will have to be very careful with how he uses him. Maybe Francona gives Kazmir an extra day’s rest or skips an occassional start in order to keep him fresh. Managing pitch counts will also be a necessity as Kazmir is notorious for coming close to and even eclipsing the 100-pitch mark before the fifth inning. The Rays rode Kamir heavily as an ace and it more than likely played a significant role in his early break down. It’s probably the same type of break down the Nationals were heavily criticised for trying to avoid with Stephen Strasburg.
Given the low-risk, high-reward nature of the Scott Kazmir signing, I’m willing to go on record saying I love it. It’s the type of outside-the-box thinking this team needs if they’re going to be able to compete in the current big spending era of Major League Baseball. Cleveland needed a left handed starter to help fill out their rotation and if Kazmir can find even a fraction of what he used to be then this will be a success. And who knows, maybe Scott Kazmir will become the Scott Kazmir of old—and if he does, the Indians’ prospects for the 2013 season improve substantially.