The Rays just made a move to acquire infielder Ryan Roberts from the Arizona Diamondbacks, so it looks like they’re not going to be sellers at the 2012 MLB trade deadline. Even if they’re not going to be making any other major acquisitions, it doesn’t seem like their best trade chips are on their way out the door. Nevertheless, we started this series talking about what the Rays have done when they have been sellers at the trade deadline, and we’re not not going to stop now. Today we’ll talk about maybe the best trade in Rays history, a trade that occurred the day before the trade deadline in 2004.
I don’t even need to tell you how this trade went, but let’s analyze the circumstances surrounding the deal at the time.
Zambrano, 27 at the time of the trade, was a very interesting case. Basically since the moment he was signed out of Venezuela, Zambrano was reliever. And the results were pretty darn good. In his first professional appearance at Rookie ball in 1996, Zambrano allowed 4 runs in 3.1 innings but struck out 6 while walking none. Two years later at Low-A, he posted a 3.38 ERA, a 10.6 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 in 48 appearances spanning 77.2 IP. The results were not as good as he moved up the ladder in the minor leagues, but in 2001, in his second go-around at Triple-A at age 25, Zambrano posted a 2.08 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9, and that was enough to get Zambrano into the Devil Rays bullpen by June. In 36 relief appearances for the D-Rays the remainder of the season, Zambrano went 6-2 with a a 3.16 ERA, a 10.2 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, a 1.1 HR/9, and 2 saves in 51.1 innings pitched.
The D-Rays hoped that Zambrano would pitch in the same type of setup role for them in 2002. But instead, Zambrano completely imploded, posting a 7.21 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in 31 appearances through the end of July, spending time in the minor leagues from late June to late July. The Rays decided to try Zambrano as a starting pitcher to see if his results would be any better. In his first major league start on August 5th, 2002 Zambrano tossed 6 innings of one-run ball, striking out 4 while walking 2. After becoming a starter, Zambrano went 4-4 with a 4.27 ERA and a 42-33 strikeout to walk ratio in 11 starts and 65.1 IP. His control tightened up somewhat- although his strikeout to walk ratio was just 1.27 to 1- and the results were solid. In 2002, Zambrano almost entirely replicated his performance as a starter in 2002, going a shocking 12-10 for the 99-loss Devil Rays while every other pitcher who made at least 20 starts was at least 5 games below .500, and posting a 4.21 ERA and 132-106 strikeout to walk ratio, 1.25 to 1, in 28 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 188.1 IP. Then in 2004, he took a slight step back from the beginning of the year up to the trade deadline, going 9-7 with a 4.43 ERA and a 109-96 strikeout to walk ratio, 1.17 to 1, in 22 starts, a relief appearance, and 128 IP.
Zambrano didn’t miss bats, and to compound his problems, he didn’t have the best control. But he excelled at keeping the ball down and forcing hitters to hit the ball on the ground with his sinker-slider-changeup arsenal, and even though his strikeout to walk ratios made you wince and his homer rate wasn’t so great, hovering around 1.0 per 9 innings, he forced enough weak contact and got enough double plays to be a slightly above-average major league pitcher. The Mets acquired him to be a dependable 3rd starter behind Tom Glavine and ex-Ray Steve Trachsel while being under team control until after the 2007 season, and they thought that he would be able to do that. You look at Zambrano’s strikeout to walk ratios and the fact that he was leading the league in walks. Zambrano led the American League in walks in 2003, and even though he left the league after this trade, Zambrano still led the AL in walks in 2004! But somehow he continued to force groundballs and continued to achieve a share of success, and you can’t blame the Mets for thinking that he could sustain that.
Fortunato, actually older than Zambrano at 29 years old when this trade was made, was a reliever who was posting very good minor league numbers but who the Rays never gave a chance to aside from 3 major league relief appearances in 2004. At the time of the trade, Fortunato had a 2.42 ERA, a 10.9 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 34 relief appearances. Fortunato was a secondary piece in this deal, but the Mets thought that he had a real chance to be a solid major league middle reliever. Fortunato was essentially what Zambrano had been as a reliever, a sinker-slider guy with horrible control, but who missed enough bats when he worked in short stints.
Diaz, 24 when this trade happened, was a hard throwing pitcher in the vein of Zambrano and Fortunato (and Kazmir), featuring even better stuff even as a he worked as a stater, but even worse control. At the time of this trade, Diaz was 4-7 with a 5.18 ERA, a 9.7 K/9, a 7.6 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 19 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 83.1 IP for the Mets’ Double-A Binghamton affiliate. Like Kazmir, Diaz had an off-beat fastball-slider arsenal, but both pitches were electric when they were anywhere near the strike zone. Diaz was a lottery ticket, and if he had somehow figured out how to control his pitches, the Rays would have had a right-handed Scott Kazmir and this already extremely controversial trade would have become the trade of century- and maybe the Rays bring home a World Series championship in 2008.
And now to Kazmir. Kazmir, just 20 when the D-Rays acquired him, had been the Mets’ first round selection back in 2002 out of Cypress Falls High School in Houston. Since signing, he had done nothing but dominate. In his pro debut at Short Season-A Brooklyn, Kazmir allowed just a 1 earned run in 5 starts and 18 IP, a 0.50 ERA, with 34 strikeouts, an insane 17 per 9 innings, against 7 walks (3.5 BB/9). The Mets tried to take it nice and slow with Kazmir starting him at Low-A Capital City, but he pitched so well there, posting a 2.36 ERA, a 12.4 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 18 starts and 76.1 IP, that they had no choice but to promote him to High-A St. Lucie for the rest of the season. Kazmir continued to pitched well there, posting a 3.27 ERA, a 10.9 K/9, a 4.4 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 7 starts and 33 IP. In 2004, the Mets tried to slow Kazmir down again, starting him back in St. Lucie, but after he posted a 3.42 ERA, a 9.2 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 11 starts and 50 IP, the Mets saw that he was bored with the level and promoted him to Double-A Binghamton, where he went 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA, a 10.0 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 4 starts and 26 IP.
The eternal question: why were the Mets possibly willing to trade Kazmir? Sure, his control was never great, but this guy had electric stuff and was zooming through the minors at age 20! The Mets knew all of that. What they were worried about was not just his control, but how dependent he was on swings and misses. Fastball-slider arsenals and especially Kazmir’s repertoire are risky because you don’t have pitches going in both directions and you don’t have as much of a separation in velocity between the two pitches. In order to succeed, Kazmir was going to have to not only maintain control and command of his pitches, but also sell his slider flawlessly, because if he tipped it at all, it didn’t have a change of pace in terms of movement or velocity that a curveball would have and he would get hit hard. And then there was Kazmir’s changeup, which still needed more work. Kazmir had number one starter upside, but there were so many different non-injury ways that he could have fallen apart, and he did in the end, although not before the Rays got the best pitcher in franchise history for four years.
Zambrano posted a 4.17 ERA for the Mets in 2005, but he required Tommy John Surgery in 2006 and was never the same pitcher. We don’t truly know whether he could have continued to achieve some amount of success despite his inability to miss bats and propensity for walking batters. Fortunato posted a 3.86 ERA in 15 relief appearances with the Mets in 2004, but he suffered a herniated disk in 2005 and fell apart as well. Diaz was waived by the D-Rays in 2005 after posting a 9.18 ERA and a 22-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 18 relief appearances. Diaz’s lottery number was never called, but he was fortunate enough to make 5 major league appearances between the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. We know what happened to Kazmir as he went 45-34 with a 3.51 ERA, a 9.7 K/9, a 4.1 BB/9, and 0.9 HR/9 with the Rays from 2005 to 2008, becoming the Rays’ first dominant pitcher and first Rays pitcher where a mention of the word “ace” could be deemed appropriate. He fell apart after 2008, but he put the team on the map and was the player that gave Rays fans hope for the future.
The Mets thought of Kazmir as a wild card; they thought of Zambrano is a consistent presence who could be a valuable pitcher for them in the middle or back of their rotation for years to come. Adding in Fortunato to the deal gave the Mets another potential big league contributor, and trading away Diaz was an afterthought because he was so unlikely to reach anything remotely near his ceiling. The Mets were beginning a turnaround that would eventually culminate with them falling 1 game short of the 2006 World Series, and they thought that Zambrano and to a lesser extent Fortunato) was a pitcher with very high likelihood of helping their ballclub in coming years. The Mets thought they were making a safe deal for their team, at least in terms of what Zambrano would give them. They always ran the risk of Kazmir breaking through, and that’s exactly what happened.
Was this a bad move by the Mets? In hindsight, the answer is clearly yes. At the time, the answer is not as clear. The Mets thought Kazmir was a risky option while Zambrano was close to a sure bet. What were their critical errors? They overstated the importance of a pitcher who was a tick above-average at best and dwelled on Kazmir’s weaknesses as opposed to his strengths. It’s a bad move to trade such a promising prospect in a deal for a back-of-the-rotation starter. Did they really think that Kazmir could be any worse than Zambrano? If Kazmir lost control and started tipping his slider, the Mets still could have put him on the major league roster and he could have given them a 1.25 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio like Zambrano did. Zambrano was an abnormality. Kazmir was, but in a different way. His fastball-slider arsenal was unorthodox, but he was relying on the proven formula of throwing strikes and blowing balls by hitters. Chuck LaMar and the Devil Rays saw the opportunity to capitalize on a basically league average starter and receive a pitcher in Kazmir with ace upside. They messed up a lot of trades, but they nailed this one. If they hadn’t, Rays history would be very different than it is today.