Until Monday, it was hard to know what the future holds for Scott Kazmir.
Major League history is not exactly loaded with examples of hyped young guys who pitched their way out of professional ball by 27, dusted off their glove to play with the Sugar Land Skeeters and wound up logging 160 innings for a playoff team in their first year back in the bigs. Kazmir is an extreme example of the not-so-extreme notion that baseball is just about impossible to predict.
But now that Kazmir has landed with the Oakland A's, reportedly with a two-year contract for $22 million, pending a physical, you can't help but wonder if his 2013 comeback was only a precursor of bigger things.
The A's, you see, have a knack for nailing this type of deal. Be it Jed Lowrie a year ago or Josh Reddick a year before that or Brandon McCarthy in 2011 or Coco Crisp in 2010, they've routinely taken on supposed injury risks and watched them turn into prime-time players, and Kazmir's output with the Indians gives us plenty of reason to believe he'll be no different.
Really, given all factors at hand in a market in which a 38-year-old Tim Hudson comes off a horrific ankle injury to receive two years, $23 million and Ricky Nolasco gets four years and $49 million and Ervin Santana reportedly searches for a $100 million commitment (we're still waiting on that one), we might look back at the end of the 2014 season and say the A's, who have now essentially turned the page on Bartolo Colon, received the steal of the offseason with this signing.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, Kazmir didn't, and just look where he ended up.
A year ago, almost nobody wanted him. It's not just that he had spent 2012 with the Skeeters; it's that he hadn't even pitched particularly well for them. The two-time All-Star Kazmir wasn't even the most famous member of that Skeeters' staff. That prestigious honor would go to the 50-year-old Roger Clemens, who briefly attempted a comeback late in the summer.
Kazmir, though, wasn't in independent ball to log sterling stats. He was merely trying to reclaim some of the velocity and all of the command that had left him in his mid-20s, when a pulled triceps, followed by a groin injury, messed with his mechanics and sent him in a downward spiral. At one time, Kazmir had been one of the more promising young arms in baseball. But by 2011 with the Angels, he was utterly unwatchable, dispatched to Triple-A after just one regular-season start and presumed to never be heard from again.
The Skeeters stint -- and the many hours spent throwing bullpen sessions behind his house -- allowed Kazmir to refocus on the finer points of his delivery, to learn to utilize his lower half, to mature as a pitcher and a person. Last winter, he took all he had learned down to Puerto Rico, and former Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, now managing in the Indians' system, was encouraged enough by Kazmir's progress that he encouraged the Indians to take a flyer on him. Desperate for upside in their rotation, the Tribe gave him a look, and Kazmir's Cactus League performance was a revelation.
I remember sitting in Indians' general manager Chris Antonetti's office in mid-March and making the comment that Kazmir, by that point, had become "one of those great Spring Training stories."
"Let's hope," Antonetti said, "he's a great 2013 story."
It seemed a tall order, if only because Kazmir's 2012 innings total -- 70, to be exact -- was limited enough to make you wonder if he could handle the grind of being a member of a five-man rotation in a 162-game season. But while there were certainly points in which Kazmir needed extra rest or simply didn't have his best stuff from the outset of the game, the overall result -- a 10-9 record, 4.04 ERA, 162 strikeouts in 158 innings -- was far better than anybody, Kazmir included, could have reasonably imagined.
Now, I'm not going to tell you those numbers are necessarily worth a $22 million guarantee. Kazmir's adjusted ERA was seven percentage points below the league average, per Baseball Reference.
But the contract number itself is a function of having to wade in thin free-agent waters. And given the other options available to the A's this winter -- Colon included -- I'd say a left-hander entering his age-30 season is a worthwhile place to invest, particularly when said left-hander got better as 2013 evolved.
Given the benefit of a full winter of rest, Kazmir ought to be in a position to improve upon his 2013 innings total (he averaged less than 5 1/2 innings per start), and he'll certainly benefit from an Oakland environment that is favorable to pitchers, particularly given his home-run-rate history.
The A's had proven to be a happy home for Colon these last couple years, even amid his PED transgression and suspension. But there is certainly something to be said for knowing when to say when, and it's understandable for a small-market, limited-budget club such as the A's to avoid the multiyear commitment Colon is searching for.
Kazmir is a younger option with a higher upside. Sure, he's an injury risk among risks, because the velocity and mechanics could very well slip yet again. But the A's have a history of getting this sort of thing right, and I wouldn't put it past Kazmir to prove them right again.