Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Position: LHP Height: 6-0 Weight: 170 Born: 1/24/84 Bats: Left Throws: Left
Scott Kazmir was drafted by the Mets in the first round in 2002 out of high school in Houston. Many scouts thought he had the best arm in the draft, but his perceived bonus demands scared some teams away. He signed for a $2.15 million bonus, less than many clubs expected. Kazmir pitched brilliantly in five starts after signing, then punctuated his status as a top prospect with a superb 2003 season. He continued to pitch well in '04, then was traded to the Devil Rays (along with prospect Joselo Diaz) just before the trade deadline for Victor Zambrano. Many Mets fans are distraught over this turn of events, given that Kazmir is one of the very best pitching prospects in the game.
Kazmir's best pitch is his fastball, clocked as high as 96 mph. Even when thrown at 92-94, it has explosive movement in the strike zone. His second pitch is a power slider, particularly overpowering against left-handers. He also has a changeup, which is inconsistent. But when the changeup is working, it is major league quality. Kazmir's fastball/slider combination is strong enough for him to succeed in The Show as a power relief pitcher, and if his change continues to develop, he has ace-starter potential as well. He's tinkered with a curveball, but right now it is his fourth-best offering. Kazmir is still refining his command and control. He will sometimes fall behind in the count, but so far minor league hitters have been unable to make him pay for that very often. Better control will be necessary for him in The Show, but scouts feel he has the athleticism and aptitude to continue to improve. His mechanics are sometimes erratic, which is the main reason for his inconsistent command. Some scouts worry that Kazmir's small physical size may keep him from developing sufficient stamina to be a starting pitcher. The Mets were very cautious with his workload.
The main flaw in Kazmir's profile is a higher-than-ideal walk rate. But his K/IP and H/IP marks, the "stuff" indicators, have been very strong throughout his career. He led all minor league pitchers in K/IP in 2003, fanning nearly 12 men per nine innings, and he's maintained a strong ratio in 2004. Even when hitters make contact, they have a hard time driving the ball against him. He gives up very few home runs, another positive sign. Kazmir was dominant in four starts since being promoted to Double-A before the trade. Overall, the numbers confirm the scouting reports: awesome stuff, dominant at times, still needs to sharpen his command, but very impressive profile for such a young pitcher. He threw five shutout innings in his first start after the trade.
Kazmir missed time with a strained ribcage muscle this spring, but is fully healthy now. The Mets were extremely conservative about his pitch counts last year. His excellent athleticism should help keep him healthy, but with young pitchers there are never guarantees.
What to expect
So, how distressed should Mets fans be, and how ecstatic should Tampa Bay boosters get? It is always wise to be careful creating or harboring expectations with pitching prospects, given the high attrition rates even among the elite. Kazmir certainly has a world of talent. He could turn into a top-notch starter, or he could develop into a Billy Wagner-style power reliever. He could also struggle with his command, or suffer a catastrophic injury. The bottom line though is that the Devil Rays picked up an excellent pitching prospect (and Diaz is pretty good too) in exchange for a 28-year-old pitcher with a 4.47 career ERA and control problems. It looks like a good deal to me, for Tampa Bay.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.