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Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock... Beware The Deadline Deal

July 31, 2006
July 31, 2006

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July 31, 2006

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Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock... Beware The Deadline Deal

As G.M.'s try to beef up their rosters before Monday's trading deadline, they can be haunted by the spectre of giving away a future star, like the Devil Rays' Scott Kazmir

With eachfastball that Scott Kazmir throws, a metropolis groans. With each slider thatplummets through the strike zone like a tiny jet whose engines have failed,thousands of fans a thousand miles north bemoan their fate. Sometimes they mustunburden themselves to the 22-year-old Kazmir, an All-Star lefthander for theTampa Bay Devil Rays. So New Yorkers e-mail him to say they regret that he wastraded from the Mets' farm system, to divulge they now root for the Rays and,sometimes, to share their pain. "My wife could see TEARS in my eyes,"wrote one fan of the deal. ¶ Kazmir reads the missives forwarded by his mom,Debbie, who handles much of his correspondence, and he smiles ... but not toobroadly. He understands why the Mets sent him to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambranoon July 30, 2004, the day before the trading deadline. "It was just part ofthe game," says Kazmir, New York's first-round pick in 2002, who was thenin Double A ball. "They needed somebody in the majors right now, a fifthstarter or whatever, and I wasn't ready yet."

This is an article from the July 31, 2006 issue Original Layout

He is, of course,being diplomatic. Kazmir and everyone who wasn't employed by the Mets (as wellas many who were) knew then that the trade could turn out to be lopsided."Someday," said Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, "that might be theworst [deal ever]." Beckett's comment came on July 3, after Kazmir hadthrown a complete game, two-hit shutout against Boston. At week's end Kazmirhad a 10--7 record for a last-place team and a 3.36 ERA (seventh in theAmerican League) with 139 strikeouts (second). The 30-year-old Zambrano? He haswon 10 games since the trade while losing 14 with a 4.43 ERA--and he's out therest of this year with a torn elbow tendon.

Kazmir is afuzzy-cheeked cautionary tale for those G.M.'s who, desperate for an immediateplayoff payoff, might be tempted to trade a prospect such as pitcher PhilipHughes (New York Yankees) or pitcher Humberto Sanchez (Detroit Tigers) secondbaseman Howie Kendrick (Los Angeles Angels) for an established veteran beforethe 4 p.m. July 31 deadline. Such short-term thinking has frequently had direlong-term consequences (page 44). It can also present a golden opportunity fora team that has a marginally desirable player--like, say, Zambrano--to swap."In the next phase of great big league pitchers, [Kazmir] is going to be ontop," says Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "[He'll be] thefirst name everyone mentions."

It's hard to feelsorry for the Mets, who through Sunday had a 12 1/2-game lead in the NationalLeague East. Besides, Kazmir would be one of many stars at Shea; in Tampa he isnot a star so much as a savior. Consider the scene during a Kazmir startagainst the Yankees on July 8: Nearly 35,000 fans filled the awkward bubblethat is Tropicana Field, which is crisscrossed by catwalks and lit by an eerieelectric sun--the giant, neon Tropicana orange that rises above rightfield.There were plenty of Yankees fans, but a large chunk of the crowd had come outfor Kazmir; average attendance has spiked 22% during his starts this season.Number 26 jerseys dotted the stadium, and down the first base line eightshirtless men sucked in their guts to better display the k-a-z-m-i-r 2-6spelled out upon them. (The Kazmir Krazies, as they call themselves, surfacedat Kazmir's first home start this year; he now pays for their tickets.)

This type ofenthusiasm is new to Tampa. In their nine seasons the D-Rays have neither wonmore than 70 games nor given the city much reason to think they ever will. LastOctober a new ownership group headed by former Goldman Sachs exec StuartSternberg took over, intent on wooing fans. The result: free parking, cheapertickets, $1-dollar hot dog nights, $10 million in ballpark improvements,contract extensions for cornerstone outfielders Carl Crawford and RoccoBaldelli, and a new, relentlessly positive manager, Joe Maddon. The battingorder is young and well-stocked. The pitching is, well, not so good (excludingKazmir, Tampa Bay had a 5.34 ERA at week's end), but every fifth day it'sformidable. "The kid is special," Yankees manager Joe Torre says."It's scary how much he's improving."

As a rookie lastseason Kazmir was 10--9 with a 3.77 ERA, but he was wild (100 walks in 186innings) and relied too much on his fastball. No longer. In training camp newpitching coach Mike Butcher worked with Kazmir on two elements of his delivery:his windup and his release point. Rather than keeping his hands lockedchest-high during his windup, Kazmir learned to bring them up, down and backup, giving him a consistent rhythm. To better disguise his pitches, heperformed drills in front of a mirror, making sure that his release point wasthe same for his 94-mph fastball--he can throw 97 but has better control at94--his 85-mph slider and his 84-mph changeup. "Last year I'd rush intoeverything with my changeup and my breaking ball and slow it down on myfastball," Kazmir says. "Hitters picked up on that."

Kazmir has alsoimproved his control, especially on his slider, which he throws from the samearm slot and with the same arm speed as his four-seam fastball. A conventionalslider is thrown off the middle finger, but Kazmir uses his index finger, sothe ball has more tilt. This season Kazmir has been able to spot it better; hehas only 46 walks in 128 2/3 innings. "Before, he threw everything to hisglove side," says Butcher. "So everything went in to a righty and outto a lefty. Now he can throw the fastball away, the slider down and out. He'sopened up a whole new part of the plate."

His changeup hasalso become a formidable weapon. Last year Kazmir dreaded using it, which isnot surprising considering he'd never thrown a change until he got to themajors. "I don't think I'd even gripped one," he says. Now, heexplains, "instead of babying it, I feel like I can really throwit."

Having good stuffis one thing; knowing how to use it is another. Most young power pitchers havethree favorite pitches--all of them fastballs. Kazmir blends strategy withblunt force. In the fourth inning against the Yankees, for example, he set upAlex Rodriguez with a fastball inside so he could then throw two sliders to thesame location. A-Rod swung a good foot above the second slider for the first ofhis two strikeouts that night. "He's got probably the best head I've seenon a pitcher that young," says Devil Rays catcher Josh Paul, an eight-yearveteran. "He almost thinks like a catcher. He gets guys looking in onespot, goes to a different spot, then comes back to where they are looking, butat a different speed."

There is no moreacute student of Kazmir than Paul, who is writing a book (tentative title: TheTools of Intelligence) about the science of working with a pitcher. After thegem against Boston, Paul sat down with a tape recorder and reviewed the game,pitch by pitch, with Kazmir. "We go over strategy," says Paul. "Ifwe get a guy out with a pitch, the next at bat we try to work off that pitch,knowing he thinks it's coming." It's a collaborative effort during games;Kazmir shakes off Paul often. As Paul puts it, "That Crash Davis stuffdoesn't work. Plus, Scott doesn't see the game like a 22-year-old."

Kazmir's maturitywas the first thing that Maddon noticed at spring training while mulling overwhether to start him on Opening Day. (He did, making Kazmir the youngestOpening Day starter since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1986.) "I knew hecould handle the pitching, but what was he like internally, could he handle[the pressure]?" says Maddon, previously a bench coach for the Angels."The answer was clear: Yeah, absolutely. He likes the moment; he wants tobe the man." So far, Kazmir has chosen his moments well; in 16 careerappearances against the Red Sox and the Yankees he is 6--5 with a 2.81 ERA.More telling, Boston sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are a combined 9for 55 (.164) with 18 K's against him.

As far back as hecan remember, Kazmir says he wanted to be a starting pitcher, to be"counted on." By age four he was playing in a T-ball league withsix-year-olds in Houston. By eight he was getting pointers from another futuremajor leaguer, 12-year-old Adam Dunn, whose father, Skipper, worked withKazmir's father, Eddie, at Dunn Enterprise, a manufacturing company owned byAdam's uncle Freeman.

After his seniorseason at Cypress Falls High, Kazmir was named Baseball America's High SchoolPlayer of the Year, and the Mets drafted Kazmir with the No. 15 pick despite alarge reservation: his size. Generously listed at 6 feet and 170 pounds, hestill looks like a teen waiting to fill out. For this reason his boyhood idolwas another vertically challenged Houston hurler, 5'11" Billy Wagner.Kazmir still remembers the advice the then Astros reliever gave him when theymet during Kazmir's senior year. "He told me people are going to comment onmy size the rest of my career," says Kazmir. "And the only thing Icould do was ignore it."

The Mets, alas,could not. At the time of the trade, New York pitching coach Rick Petersontalked about how he believed he could straighten out Zambrano's wildness. Healso expressed concern that Kazmir, because of the limited number of pitches hehad thrown in the minors, was years away from the majors. There were whisperstoo that Kazmir's small frame made it more likely that he'd be injured. Maddonnot only dismisses the concerns about his young ace's stature, but he alsoleaves him on the mound for uncommonly long stretches. "My criteria forwhether a pitcher stays in are that he's not struggling and he's not coming outof his delivery," says Maddon, who notes that four times this season (allD-Ray wins) Kazmir has thrown 119 or more pitches.

Kazmir claims notto be too concerned, matter-of-factly noting that he has yet to have an arminjury. Then again, he's not the type to seem too concerned about anything. Hemakes Quizno's runs for "breakfast" at 11:30 a.m., talks to his parentsafter every game, plays Wiffle ball with his buddies in the off-season and isrenowned in the clubhouse for his ability to master Xbox games. In other words,he is like any other kid, only with a golden left arm. "Sometimes when I'mwatching him in the bullpen, I have to remind myself that he's only 22,"says Butcher. "And that he's still got a lot of future ahead ofhim."

It's a futurethat will haunt some New Yorkers. This year, of all years, one would expectMets fans not to dwell on the negatives. Still, they can't help themselves. Atthis year's All-Star Game festivities the players and their families traveledon a parade route through Pittsburgh. As Kazmir made his way, he was cheered bymany, but by none so fervently as Mets fans. One in particular, a WillFerrell--esque character decked out in a Mets hat and shirt, made his way closeenough for Kazmir to hear him. "We miss you, man," he wailed, waving atKazmir. "C'mon, man, we want you back."

Kazmir's dad,Eddie, overheard the fan's plea and appreciated the sentiment. "It'sfunny," he said later, in describing the reaction of Mets fans,"because if you think about it, New York could really use another starterright about now too."

SI.COM
Which potential trading chip represents better value: Carlos Lee or JacqueJones? Why should G.M.'s be wary of Bobby Abreu or Barry Zito? PROTRADE.comassesses the value of the biggest names on the trade market atSI.com/baseball

Five for the Hot Stove

They won't be traded before July 31, but here are fivebig-name candidates to be moved during the off-season

TRADING BLUE CHIPS?

Miguel Tejada, SS, Orioles
The Angels--who along with the Astros and the Tigers have recently madeinquiries--are loaded with prospects, including shortstops Brandon Wood andErick Aybar, but it won't be easy to talk O's owner Peter Angelos into takinganything less than proven, major league players.

Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays
Wells would love to play in his boyhood home of Arlington. Jays want to keephim, but he has only a year left on his contract. If the Rangers offer anevery-day player (say, Gary Matthews Jr. or Hank Blalock) and young arms (JohnDanks, Thomas Diamond), a deal isn't out of the question.

Miguel Cabrera, 3B/OF, Marlins
He doesn't appear to fit in with manager Joe Girardi's hustling bunch and iseligible for arbitration. The Angels (Wood, Howie Kendrick, Mike Napoli) andthe Dodgers (Andre Ethier, Russ Martin, Matt Kemp) have the abundance of cheap,young talent that Florida would want.

Cesar Izturis, SS, Dodgers
One scout calls him "Omar Vizquel with an arm," but with Rafael Furcalplaying short in L.A., Izturis is underemployed at third. The Rockies, Reds,Brewers and Devil Rays will be among the shortstop shoppers this winter. Agood, second-tier prospect is all that it should take.

Aaron Rowand, OF, Phillies
Shane Victorino, 25, has impressed the Phils with his speed in center andability to make things happen offensively. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorfadores Rowand, who could return to his roots for a middle-of-the-rotationstarter such as Javier Vazquez.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhotograph by Bill Frakes; ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/PKRUGER (CLOCK); PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING AHEAD OFTIME
In just his second season, ex-Mets farmhand Kazmir has earned an All-Star spotand lavish praise from managers across the AL.
PHOTOMATTHEW MITCHELL/WIREIMAGE.COM NO SMALLMATTER
While the Mets thought his slight frame would be a liability, Kazmir has rackedup big strikeout totals in Tampa.
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONPHOTOTOM DIPACE