What Could Have Been -- Scott Kazmir

As much as I love the Mets, the franchise has made a plethora of questionable moves over the years. While the infamous Tom Seaver trade has often been labeled as the “worst trade in Mets history,” there have also been many other minor moves here and there that I’m sure the organization wishes they could call “backsies” on. “What Could Have Been” will be an on-going series which will take a look back at these unfortunate transactions. Today, I will examine the trade that sent former Mets pitcher Scott Kazmir, to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004.

Similar to how my parent’s generation knew where they were when President Kennedy was shot, I will always remember where I was when the New York Mets traded Scott Kazmir. I was at summer camp in Maine, and the Head Boy’s Counselor approached me–since he knew I was a die-hard Mets fan–and laid the unbelievable news on me. I recall meekly asking, “Are you sure it was Victor Zambrano–not Carlos Zambrano.” He put a hand on my shoulder and responded, “No, it was definitely Victor. Sorry, son.” I sat there stunned. How could the Mets trade their near future ace for Victor Zambrano (and Bartolome Fortunado)? It didn’t make sense, at all. But just like my parents and their families re-watched the Kennedy assassination on the news for days in disbelief, I similarly couldn’t comprehend the premature departure of Scott Kazmir, the sure savior of the Mets.

The New York Mets had selected the skinny, left-handed Scott Kazmir with the 15th overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft. Fresh out of high school, Kazmir was handed a $2.15 million signing bonus–enough to make any 18 year-old a wee bit cocky. But to a certain extent, he had the right to be. He threw a fastball in the high-90′s, was playing for a professional, New York baseball team, and became an instant millionaire when most people his age were focusing on choosing classes for college. However, his attitude–not his arm–caught the attention of his New York Mets teammates. In fact, John Franco, the longtime Mets closer, was open about his distaste for Kazmir’s “I’m the best thing since sliced bread” mentality during Spring Training. Kazmir shrugged off the criticism, and continued to run his mouth.

While most just players talk the talk, Kazmir also walked the walk (in more ways than one). Over three minor league seasons with the Mets, Kazmir posted a dominant 2.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 11.46 K/9 IP, and 3.62 BB/9 IP in 203.3 IP. His rising BB/9 IP signaled future control issues, but people were too enthralled with his electrifying K/9 IP, and Baseball America happily touted the young lefty as the 12th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2004 season. Even though Kazmir looked to be the Mets future ace, the Mets front office was eager to make a push now.

Then July 30, 2004 rolled around–a date that will live in infamy.  The Mets announced that they had traded top prospect Scott Kazmir and Jose Diaz to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for pitchers Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunado. The Mets General Manager, Jim Duquette, was instantly reamed for the trade–however, the situation was a little more complicated and political than most trades are. In fact, even though Duquette was made the scape goat for the obvious misfire, he wasn’t even the person who pulled the trigger. It was Jeff Wilpon, owner Fred Wilpon’s son. After seeking the advice of John Franco and trusted pitching coach Rick Peterson, Jeff Wilpon concluded that Kazmir would be a victim of his own arrogance (per John Franco), and that the mechanics he refused to change would surely lead to severe, even career-threatening injuries (per Rick Peterson). In addition, Peterson was also famously adamant about just needing “fifteen minutes” with Victor Zambrano to turn him into the ace pitcher the Mets desperately needed.

At first, Victor Zambrano looked pretty solid in orange in blue, however, his debut lasted a mere 14 innings before being shut down with an arm injury. The righty bounced back in 2005, but was sub-par, and then opted for Tommy John surgery in May 2006. Zambrano was non-tendered the next season, and never pitched anything close to a full season ever again. It was also uncovered that at the time of the trade, the Mets were fully warned about Zambrano’s pre-existing arm troubles, but in true Mets fashion, the insightful tips were ignore.

On the other end of the trade, the Rays quickly summoned Kazmir from the minors, and through him into the fire. The 20 year-old flashed signs of both brilliance and pure rawness, as illustrated by his 11.1 K/9 IP and 5.7 BB/9 IP, respectively in 2004. But from 2005 through 2008, there were few pitchers in baseball more exciting to watch. The lefty posted a combined 45 Wins, 3.51 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 2.39 K/BB ratio. He also was elected to two All-Star games, and led the league with 239 K’s in 2007. The future looked bright for the still young Kazmir, but then the injury bug hit.

The left-handed pitcher saw his innings dwindle from 206.6 in 2007, to 152.3 in 2008, to 147.3 in 2009. The former ace also saw his usually dominant numbers dip to a very hittable 5.92 ERA, 1.94 WHIP, and 1.82 K/BB ratio for the Rays in 2009. Looking to shed salary, the Rays traded Kazmir mid-season in 2009 to the Los Angeles Angels for infielder Sean Rodriguez, and two minor leaguers. The deal looked like an easy win for the Angels, since Kazmir appeared to rebound to the tune of a 1.73 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and a 2.6 K/BB ratio in 36.3 IP, but the pitcher regressed even further in 2010. Kazmir posted a dismal 5.94 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 1.18 K/BB ratio in 2010 for the Angels. His 4.7 BB/9 IP was the worst since his rookie season, and his 5.6 K/9 IP was a full 3.2 K/9 IP below his career average. At the tender age of 26, it looked as though Kazmir had nothing left in the tank–a disposition Rick Peterson had eerily predicted years earlier.

Now at age 27, Scott Kazmir is looking to re-discover that mid-to-high 90′s fastball that once excited fans and scouts, and crazed baseball’s top hitters. The lefty knows that 2011 will most likely make or break his future in baseball, even though he is due to make $11 million this season, and has a club option for $13.5 million in 2012 (with s $2.5 million buyout). Given the collapse of his career in recent years, Mets fans often pretend to shrug-off the infamous trade that sent the young 20 year-old blue chipper out of New York for dud Victor Zambrano. But considering Scott Kazmir was one of baseball’s top pitchers from 2005 to 2008, and it has now been a full decade since the Mets last World Series appearance, don’t let fan’s cool facade fool you. Like any normal die-hard, they still stay up at night, and truly ponder, “What could have been?”

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