A's reinforce pitching staff with deals for closer Jim Johnson and starter Scott Kazmir
The A's made two significant additions to their pitching staff on Monday, signing rejuvenated lefty starter Scott Kazmir to a two-year deal worth $22 million and acquiring closer Jim Johnson from the Orioles in a trade that sent deposed second baseman Jemile Weeks to Baltimore.
Kazmir was a two-time All-Star with the Rays last decade, a key part of their pennant-winning rotation in 2008, and from 2005 to 2008 posted a 127 ERA+ and struck out 9.7 men per nine innings. However, shoulder and back injuries flushed him out of affiliated baseball soon after he was traded to the Angels in August 2009. In 2012, Kazmir posted a 5.34 ERA for the independent Atlantic League's Suger Land Skeeters and looked finished at the age of 28. Despite that, the Indians invited him to camp as a non-roster player last December.
Kazmir rewarded Cleveland with 29 starts that saw him post a career-low walk rate (2.9 BB/9) and career-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.45), striking out more than a man per inning and averaging more than 93 miles per hour on his fastball for the first time since he led the American League with 239 strikeouts back in 2007. Kazmir also resembled his 2007 self in his increased use of his sinker, which tempered a fly ball rate which had become extreme, and added a cutter and curveball, though he used both only occasionally. Over his final 18 starts, Kazmir posted a 3.06 ERA with an outstanding 4.46 K/BB ratio.
The A's, fresh off a successful investment in the similarly reborn Bartolo Colon, hope that history repeats itself with Kazmir, who is nine years younger than Colon (he won't turn 30 until late January), throws harder, and should benefit as much if not more from Oakland's pitching-friendly park given his fly-ball rates. Of course, the A's spent just $5 million over two years on Colon, who is now a free agent and unlikely to return in the wake of this signing. They'll spend more than twice that on each year of Kazmir's new deal, having committed $11 million a year to a pitcher who still hasn't qualified for an ERA title since 2007 and, in fact, has done so just twice in his career due to various injuries and inefficiency due to wildness (even in his 2005-07 peak he averaged less than six innings pitched per start). It's a risk, but Kazmir's newfound control, recovered velocity, and expanded repertoire suggest that it's one worth taking. If he can stay healthy, the reborn Kazmir could prove to be a better pitcher than the original model.
As for Johnson, he's not as dominant as his major-league-leading 101 saves over the last two seasons suggest, nor is he as undeserving of his role as his 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings over those two seasons and nine blown saves in 2013 would imply. Johnson generates a ton of ground balls with his mid-90s sinker, which he threw 74 percent of the time last year per Brooks Baseball, which is how he gets away with a sub-par strikeout rate. He also converted 89 percent of his save opportunities in his two full seasons as the Orioles' closer, which just happens to be Mariano Rivera's career conversion rate. Like Kazmir, he's a larger investment for the A's than the player he's replacing (Balfour made $4.5 million last year, Johnson is arbitration-eligible coming off a season in which he made $6.5 million and could top $10 million for 2014), but is also a short-term one. He'll serve the A's well as Grant Balfour's replacement before heading off to free agency at the end of the 2014 season, keeping Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook in their roles as lefty and righty set-up man, respectively, in the interim.
As for Weeks, just three years ago, he looked like Oakland's best position player coming off an age-24 rookie season in which he hit .303/.340/.421 with 22 stolen bases for a 74-win team. Everything got turned on its head in 2012, when the A's won the division after shipping the struggling Weeks (.221/.305/.304 on the season with lousy marks for his fielding) back to the minors. Weeks has come to the plate just 16 times for the A's since being farmed out in late August of 2012 and has just three hits and no walks in those limited chances.
The A's, who acquired Alberto Callaspo at this year's trading deadline, have clearly moved on from Weeks, who will be 27 in Jaunuary. That doesn't mean that he has nothing to offer the Orioles, who have a hole at second base in the wake of Brian Roberts' free agency. Weeks hit .271/.376/.369 with 17 steals for Triple-A Sacramento this past season, proving he still has speed and on-base skills. Weeks also made more than 20 appearances at both shortstop and center field in an attempt to add value as a potential utility man. Ultimately, Weeks, as well as waiver claim Cord Phelps, may prove to be little more than place-holders until top prospect Jonathan Schoop is ready to take over the keystone in Baltimore, and a safety net thereafter, but he could yet prove to be a useful role player.