Scott Kazmir lived one of the great comeback stories in all of baseball in 2013. Could he come full circle by returning to the Rays next season? The Rays stole Kazmir from the Mets for Victor Zambrano back when Kazmir was the top pitching prospect in the Mets system. Kazmir had some great years in his early 20s for the Rays, earning All-Star appearances in 2006 and 2007, leading the AL in strikeouts in 2007, and pitched solidly for the 2008 pennant winners. But by 2009, when Kazmir was still just 25 years old, a series of injuries led to a marked drop in performance and the Rays dealt him to the Angels on August 31st (receiving Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres in return). He pitched well for the Angels to end 2009, but he had a disastrous 2010 and an even worse 2011 before falling out of affiliated baseball entirely in 2012. Kazmir pitched for independent league teams while trying to climb back to the bigs, and his ERA was 5.34 even there. He looked done.
After a strong Winter Balll performance, he Indians signed Kazmir to a minor league contract in 2013 giving him a chance to recapture some of his former glroy. He is no longer the overwhelming power pitcher Rays fans nicknamed “Pizza Man” because he always struck out enough opposing players to win free pizza for the fans, but with a fastball in the low 90s, a still very good slider, and a good changeup, Kazmir pitched well to contribute to the Indians’ playoff run. Kazmir went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA and a 162-47 strikeout to walk ratio in 150 innigns pitched. The Indians didn’t re-sign him, and Kazmir is now a free agent whose name will keep coming up in hot stove discussions.
The Mets drafted Kazmir out of high school in the first round in 2002. While this early start may make it seem like Kazmir’s been around forever, the fact is he’s only 29 now and will be just 30 next season. If his new approach to pitching can keep him healthy, Kazmir could be at lesast solid fourth or fifth starter for a team looking for a veteran. Could that team be the Rays?
The idea of bringing Kazmir back to the team where he starred in his youth would be a good marketing move for the Rays. There isn’t any doubt that fans would gladly welcome him back. Andrew Friedman showed he was open to signing veteran pitchers when he signed Roberto Hernandez in 2013 for $3.25 million. Hernandez was not particularly effective for the Rays, but Kazmir is an entirely different case. Kazmir is coming off a great year while Hernandez had been struggling for years. Both have great stuff, but Kazmir seemed to harness it in 2013. If the Rays give the idea of signing a veteran starter a second chance, the results could be vastly different. But while signing Kazmir may make marketing sense, but might not make baseball sense for the 2014 Rays.
Even if the Rays trade David Price this offseason, they still would have Alex Cobb, Rookie of the Year runner up Chris Archer, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson headlining their rotation. That leaves the fifth spot open, but Jake Odorizzi seems perfectly capable of filling it and Alex Colome and Enny Romero could be options as well. Without a need for a starter, the Rays would be signing Kazmir only if they see a real bargain. With Kazmir likely to get a two-year deal this offseason or at least a lucrative one-year deal, Kazmir will not be undervalued. The Rays signed Hernandez because they saw a pitcher with potential on the market for a cheap price. That will not be the case with Kazmir. Overpaying a pitcher coming off one good year after seasons of struggles goes starkly against the Rays’ strategy in free agency. Unless teams become wary of Kazmir for whatever reason, it looks like a reunion will not be in the wings. Best of luck to Kazmir as he hopes to build on his incredible comeback to the major leagues this past season, but it seems unlikeyl Tampa Bay wil not be his home once again.