Orbiting Cleveland: What’s ahead for Scott Kazmir?

Some things just don’t mix well, and that’s been the case when it comes to the Cleveland Indians and minor league signings these past few years.

Regardless of circumstances, it seems like the Indians always find themselves doing some heavy bargain shopping in the months that precede the start of Spring Training.

At times, these minor moves have paid off.

For reference, look no further than Casey Blake, who signed a minor league deal in 2003 and had a strong Indians career before ultimately being traded to acquire prospect and current Indians catcher Carlos Santana in 2008. That, my friends, is what we call value.

Yet, more often than not, it seems as if these minor moves have the opposite effect.

Felix PieChris SeddonDan Wheeler? Any of those names ring a bell?

This past offseason, the Indians seemed to go about their minor league signings with a bit of a different approach as they targeted players who at least had a track record of success, even if they were coming off a bad season.

Matt CappsRyan RaburnDaisuke MatsuzakaRich Hill and Scott Kazmir were among some of the notable signings during this past season. While a few of these players have already contributed to this season, none have arguably had a greater impact than Kazmir.

From the getgo, Kazmir just seemed a bit different from a typical Indians minor league signing.

In the past, the Indians seem to always go sign the former failed top prospect with the hope that he may be able to recapture some of his former prospect shine. Or the team often targeted players that were well over the hill and no longer productive. Here’s looking at you Johnny Damon.

Kazmir was unique situation for a couple of reasons. Sure, an argument could be made that he was indeed over the hill, but it’s also important to remember that he was just 28-years-old when he signed his minor league deal with the Indians this past offseason.

Given his age and previous track record of success, it was obvious that Kazmir was an enticing low-risk move. So far, the move has not disappointed.

In 13 starts and 69 innings of work, Kazmir is 4-4 with a 4.83 ERA. He’s had his ups-and-downs, but he also has gotten better as the season has gone on, which is evidenced by his last two starts where Kazmir has allowed just one earned run and gone 1-0 while pitching 14 innings, striking out 11 and walking just one.

In all fairness, there have been plenty of times where Kazmir has been wildly inconsistent this season. For example, on June 15 against the Washington Nationals, the left-hander could not make it out of the third inning as he allowed five earned runs and three home runs in just 2 2/3 innings of work.

However, when he’s been on, he’s been on and has pitched at almost an ace-like level. After that start against the Nationals, it appeared as if he might be destined for the bullpen, but he has since gone out and had his best two starts of the season.

Sure, that type of turnaround can be frustrating, but the bottom line is that Kazmir still has the ability to go out and dominate on any given night, and he is already a solid back-of-the-rotation arm for the Indians.

The turnaround has been somewhat odd, especially when you consider that the last time Kazmir really had any sustained success at the Major League level was 2009. Saying that may even be a bit too generous.

After a rough season (5.92 ERA in 111 innings) with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009, Kazmir was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. He posted a 1.73 ERA in six starts to close out the season with Los Angeles, but there were already noticeable warning signs.

Kazmir’s average fastball velocity in 2009 was down to 91.2, which was down from the 91.8 and 92.4 that he averaged in his stellar 2008 (3.49 ERA in 152 1/3 innings pitched) and 2007 (3.48 ERA in 206 2/3 innings pitched) campaigns, respectively.

In 2010, that velocity took an even more significant dip (90.9 mph), and so did Kazmir’s performance. The lefty started 28 games for the Angels that season and was hardly even serviceable.

In 150 innings of work, Kazmir finished 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA. He also was failing to strikeout just about anyone as his K/9 rate fell all the way down 5.6 Keep in mind that this was a guy who led the Majors in strikeouts in 2007 with 239.

Kazmir’s struggles continued in 2011 as he started just one Major League contest where he was rocked for five runs in 1 2/3 innings of work and averaged a mere 86.8 miles per hour on his fastball. He was then demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake where he posted a 17.02 ERA in five starts and 15 1/3 innings of work.

If you did not already know, I’m sure you can guess what happens next. Yep, the Angels go ahead and cut the cord and designated Kazmir for assignment.

Just like that, it appeared as if Kazmir’s Major League career had come to an abrupt end at the age of 27.

As we all know, Kazmir has since enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance this season with the Indians.

The left-hander pitched last season in the Independent League where he started 14 games and had a 5.34 ERA in 64 innings with the Sugar Land Skeeters.

However, the place where Kazmir really started to turn heads was this past winter in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In five starts and 22 2/3 innings of work, Kazmir posted a 4.37 ERA.

The numbers were insignificant though. The important thing is that Kazmir looked healthy and his fastball finally had life again.

Akron Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez managed Kazmir during the winter and relayed the positive reports to the Indians’ top brass. The rest is history.

The positives with Kazmir this season cannot be denied. It’s astonishing that he was barely striking out over five batters per nine innings in his last full season, yet take a look at where that number is now:

As hard as it may be to believe, Kazmir’s strikeout rate is the best it’s been since 2008, which is also really the last time that he was an effective Major League starter.

The increased strikeout rate probably has a lot to do with velocity, which also seems to have returned for Kazmir:

Kazmir’s average fastball velocity of 91.9 is the best it’s been since 2007, which was his best professional season and the year where he led the Major Leagues in strikeouts.

No, Kazmir can no longer dial his fastball up to 98 miles per hour, but he is still capable of sitting in the mid-90s, and perhaps the most impressive thing is that he’s been able to maintain that velocity throughout the course of an entire game.

Given his skillset, it’s easy to see why Kazmir has had so much success in his last two outings. He’s clearly had a feel for all of his pitches, and when that’s the case, he’s able to go out there dominate and essentially pitch like an ace.

That’s probably the best thing about having Kazmir as a back-of-the-rotation starter. While he can be inconsistent, it’s clear that on a good day, he can be as good as just about any starter in the Major Leagues. He has the stuff and track record to do it, which is exactly why he’s looked like an ace on a handful of occasions this year.

It’s hard to say how Kazmir will pitch for the remainder of the season, and his FIP ( 4.71) does suggest that he’s pitched about as good as his numbers suggest while his xFIP (3.97) is a tad more generous.

Even still, Kazmir has already been a tremendous find as a minor league free agent regardless of what happens. He’s given the team 13 starts with a 4.83 ERA. He’s underwhelmed in some starts, but he’s also overwhelmed in others, so it seems to even out, which is also evident by his 4-4 record.

It’d be nice for Kazmir to continue to build off his string of recent of hot starts, and if it weren’t for a couple of things, that probably would be the case.

However, one thing to remember is that Kazmir pitched a total of 17 professional innings in 2011 and 64 in 2012. He’s already at 69 this season with the Indians.

How long can his arm possibly hold up? What happens after he hits 100 innings? 125? Does he even make it there?

Could we suddenly see that average fastball velocity go from 91.9 to 90.9 and then 89.9?

The other worry with Kazmir is the injury bug.

In Wednesday’s start against the Baltimore Orioles, Kazmir came out for the eighth inning, and he seemed ready to continue his dominance. His pitch count was just 78, and he had allowed just one hit and had walked only one. In other words, dominance may be an understatement.

However, he was removed before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning because of back spasms, which reportedly had been bothering him all game. It sure looked like it, right?

Nonetheless, back spasms may be somewhat minor but what happens when back spasms suddenly change into wrist pain or shoulder soreness? There’s no guarantee that that will definitely happen, but remember that Kazmir has already surpassed his inning total with the Skeeters last season. That has to be somewhat concerning.

To avoid that, maybe the best course of action for the Indians is to move Kazmir to the bullpen before his innings total gets too high. We know the Tribe has struggled with its left-handed relievers, and Kazmir could step in and almost immediately become the most effective lefty out of the pen.

At the same time though, it’s hard to really abandon the Kazmir starting experiment, especially when he goes out and has outings like his last two.

But then again, what happens when Zach McAllister is activated off the disabled list? Someone is going to have to be removed from the rotation and this provides the perfect excuse to move Kazmir into the pen.

Still, it can never be easy to move a power, left-handed starter into a power, left-handed reliever. The Indians’ decision could become a lot easier if inning totals do start to affect Kazmir’s velocity or if he gets hurt, but that’s not something that anyone would want to see happen.

Also, just because something should happen, does not mean it will happen. It seems reasonable to conclude that Kazmir’s velocity should take a dip as his innings total continues to increase, but what if that’s not the case?

These are some very difficult questions to answer.

Clearly, Kazmir is certain to be a player that both the Indians’ management and fan base will be watching closely in the weeks to come.

Only time will tell whether the end result with Kazmir will be good or bad. Even still, Kazmir has already been one of the true good stories of the 2013 season.


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