Scott Kazmir: Reliving the Nightmare

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

On the day when the Mets will come face-to-face with their former top prospect -- and in another dimension, their next great pitcher -- let's dredge up a whole heap of pain by remembering what the southpaw represented to the Mets back when he wore the orange and blue.

I've long since sealed off my inner well of bad feelings related to Scott Kazmir. It was more or less a sanity check, made necessary by the lefty's impressive, if fleeting, run as one of the game's most exciting young power pitchers.

I was able to successfully make the transition from a jilted mess of a Mets fan/prospect watcher -- rendered heartbroken by the mere mention of the Devil Rays -- to a fully-functioning baseball fan. Not just a baseball fan, but a well-rounded person -- with my own friends and credit cards and keys.

In any case, I must point out that apparently the well has not run completely dry. In this morning's maelstrom of 'Kazmir vs. the Mets' stories, I did indeed feel a pang of that old funny feeling. Before long I even caught myself playing the 'What if?' game that occupied so many lonely nights. Urge to harm Victor Zambrano was suddenly rising once again.

So much like the Red Sox fan who forced himself to watch the Buckner play on loop in that movie 'Fever Pitch', I thought I'd indulge myself -- and by extension, all of you -- in one last bout of masochistic woe by brushing up on what we (read, Scott Kazmir and I) once had -- yet would never be.

If we're gonna do this, let's do it right and get started with a flat-out, devastatingly good scouting report from the days leading up to the 2002 draft:

"If Kazmir were a few inches taller than his listed 6 feet, he would be the favorite for the No. 1 overall pick. He's still in the mix for the Pirates and could go as high as No. 2 to the Devil Rays. Even if he's not big, his stuff is, as his lightning-quick arm reminds scouts of Ron Guidry. His lively fastball, which reaches 96 mph, and slider are both well above-average pitches, and his hard curveball gives him a third plus offering. His huge hands and long fingers help him throw his quality breaking stuff. Kazmir also shows a feel for a changeup, and he has easy command of all of his pitches. The lone question is whether he'll have the durability to take the ball every five days instead of every seven as a pro. With his ability and the way he dominated every time out this spring, it will be hard for teams at the top of the draft to pass on Kazmir."

- Baseball America 2002 MLB Draft Preview

More draft literature from the worldwide leader:

"Power pitcher who hits 95 mph with fastball consistently, even in late innings. Has good control of all pitches, including slider that is considered above-average, and decent curveball. Struck out 172 in 75 innings, while going 11-2 with 0.37 ERA in 14 games. Scouts think he will adjust to throwing every five days instead of every seven, and his stuff makes up for his smallish stature."

- ESPN 2002 MLB Draft Player Capsules (06/04/02)

"Kazmir was expected to go to Cincinnati with the third pick. Instead, he wasn't chosen until the New York Mets made him the 15th player selected in the first round.

"I don't know how to explain any of it but I know that Clint (Everts) and I worked hard enough and we deserve this,'' Kazmir said. "Now it's over and we don't have to worry about it any more.''

Kazmir had an 11-2 record and 0.37 earned run average for the Golden Eagles this season, striking out 172 batters in 75 innings. Last year as a junior he threw four consecutive no hitters."

- ESPN 2002 MLB Draft Coverage (06/04/02)

For the record, Kazmir followed those four consecutive no-hitters with a one-hitter, followed by two more no-hitters. It seems I'll never forget that fact.

Now let's delve into the heavy stuff; John Sickels -- back in his days writing for ESPN.com -- sounded off on the talented, young lefty:

"Background
Most scouts felt that Houston high school lefty Scott Kazmir was the best pitcher available in the 2002 draft class. But his bonus demands were unclear, and several teams were afraid to draft him. The Mets pulled the trigger with the 15th-overall pick, and signed him relatively easily for $2.15 million, as Kazmir didn't play the expected hardball in negotiations. He made five quick appearances in the New York-Penn League, dominating older competition and fully confirming his credentials as a phenom. In 2003, Kazmir continued to dominate, and is definitely one of the top prospects in the game.

Scouting report
Although Kazmir isn't a big guy, he has an electric body that produces thunderbolt fastballs. He hits 95 mph consistently, and has been clocked as high as 97. His fastball isn't straight, either; it has a lot of movement, yet he's able to hit spots with it much of the time. Complementing the heat is an overpowering slider, devastating to left-handers. He's working on a changeup, and will need it at higher levels, though for now the fastball/slider combination is enough. Kazmir is a good athlete, with mobility on the mound and solid field presence. He isn't just a thrower, and has pitching instincts rare in a young power hurler. He still has control problems at times, but that should ease with experience.

Performance
Kazmir's 2003 numbers are excellent in all categories. The Mets had him on a strict pitch count early in the season, which kept his innings-pitched totals down. Overall, he fanned 145 in 109 innings, allowing just 79 hits. His K/IP and H/IP ratios were among the best in the minor leagues last year, statistical evidence of his ability to master hitters. His walk rate is a bit higher than ideal, but not bad, and his hard-to-hit nature keeps the walks from haunting him too often.

Health record
So far, Kazmir has avoided arm trouble. Although some people worry that his small size will hurt his durability, it hasn't been an issue to this point. His general athleticism will help him stay healthy even if he isn't tall. The Mets have monitored his pitch counts and workload very carefully in an attempt to minimize the injury risk. This is a good idea, though of course there's no guarantee it will work.

What to expect
Kazmir will probably begin 2004 in Double-A. With the Mets in rebuilding mode, a late-season appearance for the young lefty is possible if he pitches well, but it's best not to expect him until sometime in 2005. Stardom awaits this young pitcher if he 1) maintains his control and 2) avoids injury. The same thing could be said, of course, about a dozen other pitchers. Will Kazmir be one of the lucky ones? Time will tell."

- John Sickels, ESPN.com (10/28/03)

I'm not going to lie, that one hurt.

"While Kazuo Matsui garners most of the attention at spring training, the other Kaz is wearing No. 74, a sign he will probably end up at Class AA Binghamton or perhaps Class A Port St. Lucie, where he pitched the Mets to a victory over Dunedin last season to clinch the Florida State League championship. In that outing, Kazmir worked his way in and out of jams, showing he is a plausible candidate to eventually help the Mets out of the woods.

''I remember that game well because I saw him being very composed, never flustered,'' said Ken Oberkfell, who managed Kazmir at Port St. Lucie and could manage him at Binghamton this season. ''There's no question he's a major league pitcher in the future. I'm not saying he's Sandy Koufax, but he has electric stuff.''

The Mets are careful not to bill Kazmir as the next Dwight Gooden, the ultimate example of a 20-year-old who did not need any more minor league seasoning, but Kazmir has similar credentials. He led the minor leagues in strikeouts per nine innings last season and was named the Mets' top prospect by Baseball America. With the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2002, he pitched 18 innings, struck out 34 and allowed one run.

Kazmir worked out this winter with Florida's Josh Beckett and, upon arriving at spring training, the Mets pitcher and Houston native Scott Strickland said, ''That kid has an arm like a thunderbolt.'' So few batters have reached base against Kazmir that he has not learned how to hold runners on. His fastball has also been so overwhelming that he has not had to locate it.

With their new pitching coach, Rick Peterson, the Mets believe Kazmir and those like him will reach Shea Stadium in due time. Dominant pitching has marked the finest periods in the club's history, and over the past five years, the Mets have emphasized the development of young pitchers."

- Lee Jenkins, New York Times (02/22/04)

"Though Peterson would never make comparisons to the aforementioned trio, he hasn't been shy when it comes to talking about southpaw Scott Kazmir.

In fact, no one in the organization is mincing words when it comes to the former first-round pick. From principal owner Fred Wilpon on down to Peterson, the excitement generated by Kazmir is unlike anything the Mets have experienced in years. Not since Dwight Gooden have the Mets produced a bona fide Major League ace. But that's what they think Kazmir will someday be.

"He's everything I heard about and more," Peterson said. "He's pretty special. You watch him, and it's like, 'Wow.'"

Though Kazmir was only 5-6 last year in 25 starts between Class-A Capital City and Class-A Port St. Lucie, the record wasn't indicative of how he performed. He had a combined 2.63 ERA and led all minor league pitchers in strikeouts per nine innings, with 11.94. Kazmir also allowed opponents to bat only .202 against him, good for fifth."

- MLB.com (03/08/04)

Then, the unthinkable:

"Kazmir was the Mets' first-round pick in the 2002 draft, and was pitching at Double-A Binghamton. He has struck out 259 batters in 203 1-3 innings during his minor league career.

"I think we're getting one of the fine left-handed pitching prospects in baseball. I won't be surprised if he's not here come September," Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar said.

"We get our hands on a quality left-hander and have some financial flexibility, too," he said. "It's a move that's not easy to make at anytime, but we felt like it was the right time."

Zambrano was eligible for salary arbitration after this season.

"He's pitched well enough to deserve what the system says he's going to get paid," LaMar said. "He's arguably the best pitcher this organization ever had, somebody who could still improve at the major league level. But if not, he has proven he's an outstanding major league pitcher. He's had great success and I think that success will continue."

- "Mets deal Kazmir, other prospects", ESPN.com (7/31/04)

So much to unpack there. From Duquette going on about getting younger -- despite the fact that he just traded a near-major league ready 20-year-old -- to Chuck LaMar wryly saying it's a move that's 'not easy to make', as he laughs his way from the bargaining table. And Victor Zambrano. I don't think nicer things have ever been said of the guy than by his former employers as they shooed him out of town. This was a guy with a career ERA around 4.50 at the time of the trade. The only stats in which he led the league were hit batsmen, wild pitches, and walks -- twice.

But I digress; best not to venture too far down that road -- we know it can only lead to ruin. More trade fallout:

"After the Mets inexplicably dealt him for Zambrano while barely being on the fringes of contention, word came out of New York that Kazmir might break down and might be nothing more than a reliever. He might be Ron Guidry, too, and no lefty in the minors can match his stuff (mid-90s fastball, hard breaking ball). Between Kazmir and 2004 first-round pick Jeff Niemann (still unsigned), the Rays finally have some pitchers to build around."

- Jim Callis, ESPN.com (08/03/04)

Sickels followed his original scouting report on Kazmir with an updated, Tampa Bay edition:

"Background
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.

Scouting report
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.

Performance
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.

Health record
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, ESPN.com (08/02/04)

One final note from Mr. Minorleagueball:

"When the Mets traded Kazmir, there were all kinds of strange rumors floating around from New York sources that there was something wrong with his arm, or that Kazmir was too short for success, or that he was too stubborn and resistant to coaching. The "too short" complaint was silly. So far there hasn't been anything wrong with his arm. If he's too stubborn, it isn't showing up in the stat line yet, and Kazmir has shown the willingness to make adjustments and improve his game in response to the better competition. In retrospect the complaints about Kazmir following the trade look like spin to justify the deal."

- Minorleagueball.com (03/24/06)

And it goes on like this.

So I'll stop there as I am starting to go into a dark place, wondering why I brought this on myself. However, I'll leave you with one more gut-wrenching snippet, from the previous MLB.com piece (emphasis added is my own):

"There was talk earlier this spring in the New York tabloids that Kazmir was being dangled as trade bait for Texas' Alfonso Soriano. Those rumors proved to be false, however. Wilpon and general manager Jim Duquette are on record as saying that Kazmir isn't going to be dealt and that they expect him to be the cornerstone of the Mets' staff for many years.

"No one is untouchable and of course situations can change," Duquette said. "But it's just not likely. He's one of those guys that we feel has a bright future in New York, and we're expecting him to pitch for us at the Major League level."

/whimper

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