The Mets come into Cleveland tonight for a three game series against the Indians beginning with an interesting pitching matchup to kick things off. 23-year-old Zach Wheeler of the Mets faces 29-year-old Scott Kazmir in a duel of present and former top pitching prospects. Wheeler — called up in June — is showing fans the talent and promise that made him so highly touted. In 14 starts this year, Wheeler is 7-3 with 107 strikeouts and a 3.36 ERA. He is viewed as an integral piece in the rebuilding process of a consistent winner in New York, something Kazmir knows a little bit about.
It was nine years ago when the young left-hander was involved in one of the most infamous trades in Mets history.
On July 30, 2004, Kazmir and minor leaguer Joselo Diaz were traded to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. Instantly, this trade became a subject of infuriation for fans and media for years to come. Zambrano’s Mets career, of course, was short lived and unsuccessful. He was only able to start 35 games in two and half years for the Mets before elbow issues sidelined him and ultimately ended his pitching career. The key factor in the trade dispute was the puzzling inclusion of Kazmir. Why was he placed in the trade? Why didn’t they get more of a return back? Zambrano’s injury problems just added fuel to the already implanted rage and fans wanted answers.
The Mets’ front office — mainly general manager Jim Duquette — stated they were primed for a pennant chase and wanted to make moves that would immediately impact the team. All of that rhetoric and nonsense can be rehashed and mocked — and most definitely should — because it was a terrible move. The Mets traded a top prospect without getting equal value, and the return they got was foreseeably mediocre with a bum elbow. Any casual fan could see this, so I cannot explain why the front office did not. Now nine years later, there are two underlying questions that at the time could not be answered. Is Kazmir built for a long career? Will he become an ace? We can safely no to both.
The Mets had a few concerns about the long-term productivity when projecting Kazmir. They believed due to his stature, mechanics, and delivery that he would develop arm injuries. They also questioned his lack of control, which would elevate his pitch count and affect his ability to go deep in games. Splitting time between Capital City and St. Lucie in 2003, Kazmir’s BB/9 was 3.6 and in 2004 with St. Lucie and Binghamton it was 3.7. His K/9 in the same years was 11.9 and 9.3, respectively. So without doing the math, you can see how pitches per start could add up without the relief of getting quick outs via contact. In 179 career starts, Kazmir had only eight starts exceeding seven innings. In respects to his stature, there is some logic that shouldn’t be ignored. Kazmir is listed as 6’0, but as everyone around the game knows, height and width are relatively skewed in media guides for biased purposes. If you see him in person, it’s clearly obvious he is not six foot tall. Couple that fact with his mechanics which have led to him having shoulder and elbow problems throughout his career, and it becomes hard to criticize people who might have foreseen these setbacks.
Kazmir started off his career great. In a four season span from 2005 through 2008, he averaged 172.3 innings per season with a 3.51 ERA while averaging 10.8 SO/9. Towards the end of 2008 he began to suffer elbow problems which kept him out of a few starts. In 2009, after starting the year on the DL, a big drop off occurred as he pitched to a 4.89 ERA in 147.3 innings while averaging 7.1 SO/9. In 2010, same thing; started season on DL with shoulder injury and then pitched to a 5.94 ERA in 150.3 innings while averaging 5.7 SO/9. In 2011, his velocity went down considerably and despite trying to tinker with mechanics, was released during the season in the minors. Kazmir was 27 years old at time of his release.
As it’s not unusual for pitchers to have arm injuries, it is rarer for the drastic drop in velocity and production to occur without some kind of medical procedure like Tommy John surgery. Kazmir’s decline seemed to come from his body and arm wearing down at a young age, much like another young talent with similar stature. For example, take Tim Lincecum’s career. Many scouts saw the combination of his 5’11’’stature and “flawed” mechanics as a red flag before his career and for some during. Those fears seemed silly after his first five years, in which Lincecum led the National League in strikeouts three straight years while winning two Cy Young awards. Last year and this year have now shown those original fears might have been justified. After starting his career with a five year stretch with a combined ERA of 2.96 in 155 starts, Lincecum has pitched to an alarming 4.85 in 61 starts. Linecum’s average fastball velocity has dropped from 94.7 mph in 2007, to 92.1 in 2010, to 90.9 in 2013. Now 29, Lincecum is due to become a free agent at years end with his future in doubt.
I am in no way defending the Kazmir trade back in 2004, but rather shedding light on a perspective that many had within the organization at the time. Although his talent was heralded, his ceiling was viewed by many as limited; not to mention some veterans were reported as disliking him for personal reasons. The past few years, organizations have placed an emphasis on premium pitching and installed a strict protocol on how it is handled. Pitch counts, inning caps, and advanced statistics seem to be here to stay. Now with all the sabermetrics and advanced scouting prevalent in baseball, it’s conceivable that maybe a simple figure like height is what got Kazmir traded.