By Jay Jaffe
Every spring training features its share of players attempting to come back from the outskirts of oblivion. Usually these farfetched attempts end with a release, or at most a minor league assignment in which a player quickly shows that he's every bit as done as the rest of the baseball world believed him to be. But once in a while, a long-lost player goes on a run via which he plays his way onto a team's roster.
The player who best fits that bill this spring is Scott Kazmir. The 29-year-old lefty hasn't pitched in the majors since April 3, 2011, but he's in the midst of making a case for himself as the Indians' fifth starter. Spring stats are virtually meaningless, but thus far, he hasn't allowed a run in eight innings of Cactus League work over three turns, and while he was touched for four runs in five innings during a minor league game on Sunday, at least part of that was due to missed plays on defense. According to MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, Kazmir's fastball consistently sat in the 88-92 mph range and included 13 swings and misses over the final two innings.
Including two minor league games, Kazmir now has 18 strikeouts and three walks in his 16 innings of work — evidence, at the very least, that he's solved the control problems that led to his release by Angels in 2011. In the wake of his previous turn, a scout who had been watching his progress told Baseball Prospectus' John Perrotto, "He’s not as good as he was when was making All-Star teams with Tampa Bay, but he’s pitching pretty darn well… He’s got most of his velocity back, and his changeup has been outstanding. I think he’s ready to get big-league hitters out again.”
Kazmir is competing for the fifth spot in Cleveland's rotation behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister. His competition includes Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber and Daisuke Matsuzaka, a group that together composes something of an amalgam of Kazmir's situation:
• Bauer, who was acquired over the winter in a three-way deal with the Diamondbacks, has the highest upside of them all. Drafted with the third overall pick in 2011, he came into the year ranked 14th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list and has thrown the ball well this spring, but the 22-year-old righty has just 156 minor league innings and 24 major league ones under his belt, and the Indians could opt to start him in Triple-A out of concern regarding his service time.
• Carrasco, who turns 26 this week, is a former top prospect (three times on BA's list from 2007-2009) who was part of the return in the Cliff Lee trade back in 2009. He has a 4.93 ERA in 191 2/3 major league innings, but had established himself at the major league level prior to September 2011 Tommy John surgery, which knocked him out of action for all of last season.
• Kluber, who turns 27 on April 10, made 12 starts with a 5.14 ERA for the Indians last year; he had trouble keeping the ball in the park (1.3 homers per nine) but did strike out 7.7 per nine, the second highest rate among the seven Indians who made at least 10 starts.
• Matsuzaka, 32, is trying to resurrect his career after getting ripped for an 8.28 ERA in 11 starts for the Red Sox last year; his comeback from June 2011 Tommy John surgery wasn't helped by an eight-week stint on the disabled list due to a trapezius injury, and already this spring, he experienced a setback due to a calf strain. On Monday he was told he wouldn't make the opening day roster, but he could still start the year in the minors with a June 1 opt-out.
Kazmir has fallen from great heights. A 2002 first-round pick by the Mets, he had twice been ranked among the top dozen prospects by Baseball America by the time he was traded to the Devil Rays for journeyman Victor Zambrano just two years later. He debuted in the majors less than a month after that trade, when he was still just 20 years old, and over the next four seasons (2005-2008), earned All-Star honors twice while striking out an MLB-high 9.7 per nine en route to a 3.51 ERA (127 ERA+). Elbow and shoulder problems led to three stints on the DL in that span, an ominous showing given the three-year, $28.5 million extension he signed in May 2008. When the Rays emerged as contenders in 2008 on the backs of less expensive pitchers such as Matt Garza and James Shields — with David Price also in the pipeline — it became apparent that he'd eventually be unloaded, particularly given the team's financial limitations.
Kazmir was roughed up for a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts in 2009, and missed five weeks with a quad strain, but somehow the Rays were able to trade him to the Angels in exchange for a three-player package that included infielder Sean Rodriguez and pitcher Alex Torres. The Angels had reason to be optimistic when he pitched to a superficially impressive 1.73 ERA over his six post-trade starts, but his strikeout rate was down to 7.1 per nine. He was torched for a 5.94 ERA in 28 starts the following year, with his strikeout, walk and homer rates all converging into an ugly pileup, and shoulder fatigue costing him two more stints on the DL. After just one start for the Angels the following April, he went on the DL with lower back stiffness, walked 20 in 15 1/3 innings during a rehab stint, and drew his release in mid-June. The Angels were forced to eat roughly $12 million in salary, including a $2.5 million buyout on a 2012 club option.
Unable to find a suitable deal within a major league organization last winter or spring, Kazmir caught on with Sugarland Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League in June. Even there the results weren't inspiring: a 5.34 ERA, 4.6 walks and 7.2 strikeouts per nine in 14 starts totaling 64 innings. An eight-walk outing in August made headlines, but by the end of the year he had ironed out his mechanics to the extent of being able to relocate the strike zone. He continued to turn heads pitching in Puerto Rico over the winter, topping out at 93-94 mph; his manager there, Edwin Rodriguez, is the manager of the Indians' Double-A Carolina affiliate, hence his route to Cleveland. Whether he'll stick with Cleveland remains to be seen. Both Bauer and Carrasco rate as key components of the Indians future, and it may take an injury or other setback to carve out a spot for Kazmir, who himself isn't exactly the picture of durability. He has an April 2 opt-out date if he's not on the major league roster, but it's not known whether he'd accept an assignment to the minors. So long as he can find the strike zone with some regularity, he figures to keep getting chances, and it's worth hoping he can continue to recapture some of his once-dazzling form.