Looking back, Kazmir-Zambrano trade wasn't as awful as it seemed
The 2004 Mets-Tampa Bay deal has plagued former N.Y. GM Jim Duquette
Kazmir had a few good years with the Rays, but now he's broken down
The Mets have made some bad deals over the years and this one far from worst
Called Jim Duquette yesterday. Left a message for him at the Sirius XM office, where he hosts a show with Kevin Kennedy. Mentioned that I'm working on a column about Scott Kazmir.
Never heard back.
I'm not upset. Duquette is someone I know a little bit, someone I like and respect as both a former baseball executive and, now, as a fellow member of the media. Maybe he was busy. Maybe he had to cook dinner, fly to Guam, buy a sofa, meet my Uncle Marty for sushi. My guess, however, is that Duquette simply doesn't want to answer the 432,532,211th question of his life about Kazmir, Victor Zambrano and the ill-conceived trade that overshadowed his brief career as general manager of the New York Mets.
I completely understand.
It has been nearly six years to the day since Duquette, in his only season as New York's GM, famously dealt his team's top prospect, the 20-year-old Kazmir, to Tampa Bay for a pitcher who, in 2003, led the American League in walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen. Not that Zambrano didn't have an upside. He threw hard, his fastball had some wicked movement and, at age 28, he was still in the prime of his career.
"The feeling is that we still have a chance (this year)," Duquette said at the time. "We're still in the mix. Let's go for it. With these guys added to the rotation [the Mets also acquired Kris Benson from Pittsburgh] we have a chance to win every night."
The trade was a disaster.
At the time, New York was seven games behind Atlanta in the NL East standings and 7 1/2 back of San Diego for the wild card. It was a listless, heartless, ill-fitted collection of players. Mike Piazza missed 94 games the year before, 2003, which was an utter disaster (66-95) from the start as opposed to a season that eventually spiraled into hopelessness the way 2004 did. In 2004, Piazza was healthy but woefully miscast at first base. Jason Philips was the great bespectacled hope behind the plate, Kaz Matsui was butchering balls at shortstop, a person named Eric Valent somehow accumulated 270 at-bats and the overmatched Art Howe was managing. With or without two new starting pitchers, the Mets were wretched. They finished the year 71-91, a whopping 25 games behind Atlanta and 21 out of the wild card.
Unbeknownst to the Mets, Zambrano was suffering from a bum right elbow. He would last three seasons in New York, going 10-14 with a 4.42 ERA in 39 appearances. He hasn't played in a major league game since 2007.
In the ensuing years, as Kazmir emerged as Tampa Bay's ace and a two-time All-Star, Mets fans grew to place the deal among the worst in franchise history. There was Nolan Ryan (along with Leroy Stanton, Francisco Estrada and Don Rose) to the Angels for Jim Fregosi in 1971. There was Tom Seaver to the Reds for Doug Flynn, Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman in 1977. There was Mike Scott to the Astros for Danny Heep in 1982. There was Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell and Tom Edens to Philadelphia for Juan Samuel in 1989.
And now there was Kazmir for Zambrano -- Duquette's personal Waterloo.
With, ahem, one problem.
While Duquette was certainly foolish to take on Zambrano, his worries about Kazmir have, by and large, proven true. At the time of the deal, Kazmir boosters were comparing the youngster to another Ron Guidry. Both were small (Kazmir is 6-feet, 175 pounds), left-handed, fluid and hard-throwing. Yet how many Ron Guidrys are there? Truth is, when the Mets brass watched Kazmir throw, they often saw another Bud Smith, a slight St. Louis left-hander who, as a rookie phenom in 2001, went 6-3 while tossing a no-hitter. Smith was briefly the talk of baseball, but after pitching terribly early in 2002, he was traded to Philadelphia and never heard from again. He was small, he was left-handed -- and he broke down.
Yes, Scott Kazmir has had a nice career. But nice is often misleading. Now in his seventh full season, Kazmir has never posted an ERA lower than 3.48, has never won more than 13 games and has only thrown one complete game -- in 2006. After beginning last season with an 8-7 record and 5.92 ERA for Tampa Bay, he was unceremoniously shipped to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and two prospects.
Now, with his velocity down, his once-potent slider nonexistent and his ERA a major league-worst 6.92, Kazmir has been placed on the disabled list by an organization perplexed and befuddled by a should-be ace. He recently made the worst start in the 49-year history of the Angels, permitting 13 earned runs over five innings against Oakland. "Looking at video, I can't even tell if that's me out there," Kazmir recently told ESPN. "It's getting a little out of control."
In other words, the man has broken down. He will likely never be Ron Guidry or, for that matter, the Scott Kazmir of four years ago.
This doesn't mean Jim Duquette was right. The trade was unambiguously dumb and irrational and unsophisticated. But after six years of being reminded of the blunder, it's time to let him move on.
The baseball landscape is one littered with boneheaded swaps -- many worse than Kazmir for Zambrano.
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.