Can Kazmir Take The Abuse?

The Indians are in the middle of a rapid/deliberate rebuild with a new manager (Terry Francona), a new right fielder (Nick Swisher), and a new top prospect (Trevor Bauer). Amid this flurry of moves, they also decided to take a shot on a former phenom who once had a similarly bright future to Bauer, Scott Kazmir.

Kazmir has had a star-crossed career from top draft pick of the Mets in 2002; to being traded by the Mets; to becoming the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays and receiving a long term contract; to being traded to the Angels and flaming out completely with injuries and ineffectiveness.

Seemingly changed from the swaggering, fastball-heaving lefty he was, Kazmir was out of baseball and trying out for big league clubs without an offer being made. He went to the Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters (the same team for whom Roger Clemens pitched last year), and posted a 3-6 record with 74 hits allowed in 64 innings and poor across-the-board numbers. If he still had a lot left in the tank as the same pitcher he was, he should’ve done far better than that for an Independent League team.

If Kazmir is willing to change to accommodate his limited stuff, hopeful comparisons will inevitably be made to another lefty pitcher who reinvented himself to win a lot of games, make himself a lot of money, and earn widespread respect for his determination and willingness to become something different than what he was to succeed—Jamie Moyer.

But there are significant differences between Moyer and Kazmir as pitchers and people. Moyer never threw that hard to begin with. When he began the long journey from released pitcher at age 29, he was offered a coaching job by the Cubs and turned it down choosing to keep trying to make it as a pitcher. He didn’t have much of a backup plan nor a lot of money in the bank. He wasn’t a bonus baby as a 6th round pick in 1984 and by the time his career as a big league player appeared over in 1992, he’d made slightly more than $1 million.

It took Moyer another year-plus in the minors and three years in the big leagues bouncing between the Orioles, Red Sox and Mariners before baseball people looked up and realized that perhaps Moyer had figured something out. He’d never had any substantial success in the big leagues before his reinvention.

Kazmir is not in that position. He was an All-Star, the ace of a pennant winner and made over $30 million as a player. Unless he’s been idiotically wasteful, he never has to work another day in his life. He’s willing to swallow his pride to take a minor league deal and get a chance with the Indians, but will he go to the minors and stay there, altering the way he’s pitched all his life with power and dominance? Will he bounce to another team if the Indians tell him they’re sorry, but they don’t think he can help?

What makes it more difficult for Kazmir is the personality that so grated on veterans with the Mets and was a large part of his mound presence. He might have the same personality, but there won’t be the goods to back it up if he’s no longer blowing people away. The comments he’s going to hear in spring training if he’s popping maximum 84-88 instead of 93 are difficult to take for someone of his former stature and attitude. It will get worse if he decides to go down to the minors. Someone like Moyer could take hearing such clever witticisms as, “Hey, I’ve never seen a butterfly land on the ball in mid-flight!” Or, “Now pitching: Eephus Pus!!” Or “They’re clocking your velocity with a sundial!!” Or when he gives up a tape-measure homer, “Did they serve dinner on that flight? Buy a first class ticket and see, big shot!”

It’s embarrassing and tough to swallow. Is Kazmir humbled enough after his crash and eventual release by the Angels and determined enough to take that abuse without saying, “The hell with this,” and leaving?

I’m not so sure.

What Moyer did is unlikely to happen again anytime soon. Moyer could take it and give it back. Why did he do it? Possibly it’s because of money; possibly it’s because of not knowing what else to do with himself; possibly it’s because he didn’t want to give up; and possibly it’s because he was too hard-headed to listen when everyone—everyone—was telling him to move on.

Moyer realized that he wasn’t going to suddenly develop a 95-mph fastball, so he began to transform himself into a craftsman who could still get a fastball in the low-to-mid-80s past a hitter using control, intelligence and by changing speeds. It’s not as easy as “pitch like this.” It takes work.

Is Kazmir prepared to sacrifice his energy, time and pride to put in that level of effort and make it back as Moyer did? It takes a deep commitment and given what Kazmir was and what he is now, his career trajectory has replicated another lefty who was a high draft pick and had a brief career as a top tier starter with a power fastball. He lost the fastball and bounced from team to team, altering his delivery, having surgeries and trying to get it back—Steve Avery. He never did get it back and was done at 33.

Will Kazmir be a Moyer? Or will he be an Avery?

It all depends on him, what he’s willing to do and how much he’ll take to get it.

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