Scott Kazmir was
a nine-year-old wisp of a boy when he got his first memorable pitching lesson.
His teacher: a friend, five years his elder, named Adam Dunn. The two were
playing Wiffle ball at the Dunn family ranch in Porter, Texas, when Adam, now
an All-Star outfielder for the Reds, stopped to give Scott some pointers.
"He started teaching me how to wind up and throw with different grips,"
recalls Kazmir, whose father, Eddie, worked for the Texas welding supply
company run by Dunn's uncle. "I'm pretty sure he had no idea what he was
talking about, but I don't think he screwed me up too badly."
Bad advice is
easily overcome when you're as gifted as Kazmir, a baby-faced 22-year-old who
owns a mid-90s fastball and a killer slider. With only 12 career wins, the
lefty begins his second full season in the majors facing Texas-sized
expectations: Hailed as the Lone Star state's potential heir to Nolan Ryan and
Roger Clemens, he is already Tampa Bay's ace. At 6 feet and 170 pounds, Kazmir
also represents a slender Ray of hope for an eight-year-old franchise that
hasn't had a team ERA south of 4.80 for seven straight seasons and has never
produced a 15-game winner.
confident we're going to score enough runs," says executive vice president
Andrew Friedman, whose young lineup (no regular is older than 30) got a boost
last year from 24-year-old second baseman Jorge Cantu (his 28 homers led the
team) and 25-year-old DH-outfielder Jonny Gomes (.534 slugging percentage).
"What's less known is our pitching staff, and that's why Scott is extremely
important to this organization. We're expecting him to anchor our staff for
many seasons to come."
Tampa Bay got a
tantalizing glimpse of Kazmir's potential during the second half of last
season, when he used his full array of pitches--including a looping curveball
and a fast-improving changeup--and went 7--2 with a 2.79 ERA and 92 K's in 84
innings. While the coaching staff kept Kazmir on a short leash, never letting
him work past the seventh inning, he still finished fourth in the AL with 174
strikeouts. But pitching coach Mike Butcher remains focused on another stat:
Kazmir's league-high 4.84 walks per nine innings (minimum 162 innings).
"When he learns to improve his control," Butcher says, "he will be
an elite pitcher."
impressive as Kazmir's repertoire is his poise. "When you've got a young
pitcher going up against AL East teams, the results can be disastrous no matter
how talented he is," says catcher Toby Hall. "What I saw with Scott is
that he actually gets better as the stage gets bigger. He won games at Fenway
Park and Yankee Stadium, pitching like he was in his own backyard."
New York nearly
became Kazmir's backyard. A first-round draft pick by the Mets in 2002, he was
dealt to Tampa Bay two years ago for righthander Victor Zambrano in a deal
that's made more than one list of Worst Mets Trades Ever on fan blogs.
"When the trade went down, I was pretty devastated--I was excited about
being in New York, already thinking about which Manhattan neighborhood I wanted
to live in," he says. "But all that's behind me."
There's not much
behind Kazmir in the Rays' rotation: Righthander Seth McClung was demoted twice
to the minors in 2005 and lasted fewer than three innings in four of his 17
starts, and in July lefty Mark Hendrickson became the franchise's first pitcher
to fail to retire a batter in a start (an outing at Fenway). On the way,
however, is the best crop of young arms that the team has ever had.
Righthanders Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel and Jamie Shields will likely start
the season at Triple A Durham but are expected to get work in the majors this
With the Orioles
in shambles, the Rays have a shot to escape the division cellar for just the
second time in their eight seasons. Is there reason for increased optimism in
Tampa? "We were five games over .500 in the second half last year, and we
expect to build from that," Friedman says. "There's no question that
we've now got the talent to be playing meaningful games in September soon
pitchers issued the most walks in the majors (615) in 2005; the club's hitters
drew the second fewest (412). The last club to finish at the bottom in both
categories was the 1972 Angels.
a modest proposal