There are only two conclusions to be made from the trade of Scott Kazmir from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Los Angeles Angels.
Either the Rays do not believe Kazmir ever will re-gain his elite-pitcher form. Or they’re simply dumping salary.
The knee-jerk reaction is to assume the latter, that the Rays are looking to maintain their status as one of baseball’s more profitable teams and are dumping one of the few big contracts they can. If Pat Burrell was still breathing, the Rays possibly could have kept Kazmir and this winter dealt Burrell and the $9 million he’s owed for 2010.
It’s more likely, however, the Rays have given up on Kazmir and do not like the idea of paying ace money to a guy who looks more like a No.3 or No. 4 starter. Kazmir has been maddeningly erratic over the last year and only recently brought his 2009 ERA below 7.00. So bad was Kazmir earlier this season that the Rays more or less created a phantom injury to give him time off.
The agent Scott Boras has done some fascinating research on pitchers who do not compete in college and reach the Majors at a young age. The research says that pitchers almost always are best served by going to college. Boras, as controversial as he can be, puts his money behind his research; he rarely represents high school pitchers.
One such client was Steve Avery, the lefty pitcher who debuted with the Atlanta Braves at the age of 20 in 1990. He was among the “Young Guns” Braves rotation of the early ‘90s that included Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and later Greg Maddux.
Avery was better than Glavine and Smoltz from 1991 through ’93. It’s tough to believe now, but Avery was considered to have the highest ceiling of any of the four, including Maddux.
Late in the 1993 season, Avery suffered a minor muscle pull under his pitching armpit. The following year, his wife gave birth very prematurely to their first child, a son. The boy ended up being okay and the injury was minor, but Avery was never the same. By 25, he was effectively done, though he pitched until the age of 29 and made a brief comeback in 2003, at the age of 33.
People who worked for the Braves at the time still don’t know what happened to Avery. It apparently was nothing physical.
Like Avery, Kazmir is a hard-throwing left-hander who reached the Majors at the age of 20 and experienced great success between the ages of 21 and 24. Like Avery, Kazmir signed a lucrative long-term deal early in his career, sacrificing arbitration eligibility and postponing free agency in exchange for guaranteed money.
Like Avery, Kazmir seems to have made a good financial decision as his performance has inexplicably suffered. Like Avery, Kazmir is a former first-round pick and a pleasant young man who helped turn around the fortunes of a long-suffering franchise.
Like Avery, Kazmir suffered a relatively minor injury that seems to have thrown his mechanics out of whack. In Kazmir’s case, the injury was more serious (elbow), but nothing requiring Tommy John surgery or a long stint on the disabled list.
The Braves stuck with Avery until the end of his contract, though he no longer was part of the Fab Four. He went 7-13 in 1995 with a 4.67 ERA and 7-10, 4.47 the following season. He later played for the Red Sox, Reds, and Tigers, but never recovered.
Avery earned more than $22 million in his career, along with a World Series ring, and presumably is living happily somewhere at the age of 39. Dontrelle Willis, another hard-throwing lefty, has followed a similar career path and also seems on the verge of being out of baseball by his 30th birthday.
Like Avery, Willis was a phenom who pitched in the World Series at the age of 21, was dominant for three years, and inexplicably declined. Like Avery (and Kazmir), Willis had the foresight to sign a long-term deal early in his career.
Kazmir won’t be 26 until January and has a contract that guarantees him career earnings of more than $30 million. There’s a possibility he could rediscover his form in Anaheim, though that seems unlikely.
After all, twenty-nine teams passed on Kazmir when he went through waivers earlier this summer. The team that believed in him the most just threw in the towel.
Kazmir is a guy worth rooting for, just like Avery and Willis. Unfortunately, the odds of a lefty phenom rediscovering his form are even more unlikely than 21-year-olds pitching in the World Series.