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April 9, 2009

Prospectus Today

Deal Away the Steal of the Decade?

by Joe Sheehan

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I suppose I could go absolutely ballistic again over the way a manager-the way the industry-runs a bullpen, but let's just leave it at this and move on.

Last night, Scott Kazmir allowed one run over six innings, striking out five. The outing helped the Rays get their first win of the season, 7-2 over the Red Sox. Coming off of the previous day's James Shields disaster, Kazmir's performance had to encourage the Rays, who are starting the season without their best possible rotation as David Price opens the season at Triple-A, part of a workload-management program. Kazmir's good work is likely going to be critical for a team that sees itself as a contender for another AL East crown.

So, I think they should trade him. Kazmir is exactly the kind of player who should be marketed aggressively by his team, especially when he's going well, because his perceived value is much higher than his actual value. Kazmir is a left-handed starter who throws in the mid to high 90s, has a strong breaking ball and is young enough to get people excited about his potential. In part because of the circumstances of his becoming a Ray, one of the worst trades of the decade, Kazmir has had a disproportionate amount of attention focused on him since before he ever threw a major league pitch.

Separate the pitcher out from all of that, and you get someone who is good, but not great, someone high-risk with a decreasing likelihood of high reward. Someone who fits the mold of a player who brings you back more, considering the money you'll save on his (reasonable) contract, than you're going to get from him on the mound.

The primary reason for this is that Kazmir doesn't have enough command to be an ace. Additionally, the amount of stress he puts on his body, throwing as many pitches as he does from the stretch and at max effort, put him at risk for injury. The combination of these factors is the best data point in my argument: Kazmir has made a full complement of starts just twice in his four seasons, and he's thrown 200 innings in a season once. Without the ability to give a team 200 or more innings, no pitcher can be a #1 starter.

Kazmir is very difficult to hit, to be sure. He's struck out a quarter of the batters he's faced in his career, and was a tick above that level last year. However, he also walks a lot of hitters, giving out free passes to a bit more than 10% of the hitters he's faced. He's improved slightly in this regard, but his 10.6% walk rate last year was right in line with his career average. As you look into his performance over the past few seasons, you see that on a per-pitch level, he's not developing; he's throwing the same number of strikes, missing the same number of bats, that he did two years prior. He is, as they say, what we think he is.

Looking forward, the Rays have Kazmir under control up to four more seasons, thanks to a three-year contract extension that kicked in this week. Kazmir is guaranteed $6 million, $8 million, and $12 million over the next three years, with a $13.5 million club option on his services for 2012, and a $2.5 million buyout should his owners pass on that. That contact is both the best reason to keep him-he's a cheap mid-rotation starter even if he never develops a bit-and the best reason to trade him-that's a lot of money committed to a small, high-effort pitcher who hasn't been durable. The contract would likely be a net benefit in dealing Kazmir, as any team who likes him enough to deal for him would see having him locked up into the next election cycle as a plus.

Now, the Rays can consider dealing their nominal #2 starter because of the depth they have in house. In a few short months, they're going to have to find a place for David Price, who is certainly no worse than Kazmir at this moment. They just dumped Jason Hammel, a perfectly functional fifth starter, solely because he was out of options and so were they. In addition to Price, Wade Davis is basically ready to step into a big-league rotation, and Jeremy Hellickson will certainly be so by Opening Day 2010. The Rays are going to have to trade starting pitching at some point, and I don't mean more moves like punting Hammel. Kazmir is the most expensive and the most high-risk of the bunch. He'll bring back much, much more than Andrew Sonnanstine or a Davis/Hellickson package will in a deal.

In fact, the Rays have so much talent on hand that the most difficult question to answer in trading Kazmir is what to look for in return. The weakest spots at the major league level are right field and the middle infield, though 2008 first-round pick Tim Beckham will likely address the latter issue. If you were going to backfill behind guys, you'd look for a top-tier catching prospect to eventually supplant Dioner Navarro, or perhaps a center fielder who will eventually move B.J. Upton to a corner.

It's probably better to look at this as a talent grab, worrying about positions later. Find a team that would love to add what they see as a potential ace starter for the next four years at sub-Peavy pricing, and pick through their top prospects list. Could you get the Indians, desperate for starting pitching, to part with Carlos Santana and some pitching? Would the Rangers cash in some of their talent, specifically Derek Holland, for a chance to push the Angels this year and lock in some certainty in the years to follow? That's the kind of deal the Rays should be looking to make with Kazmir.

To some extent, this is shorting a stock. It is my opinion that Scott Kazmir isn't going to get any better than he is right now, despite that incredibly live arm, and that it's very possible he takes a sharp turn south. I'd be willing, given the state of the Rays' pitching staff, to roll the dice on dealing away Kazmir's upside in exchange for the talent I could get for doing so, the money I'd save, and changing the risk profile of my team. The Rays, quite simply, might never miss Kazmir. Forget Price; Davis and Hellickson are fairly likely to match Kazmir's performance over the 2009-12 period. The money saved can go to B.J. Upton, Matt Garza, or even a free agent who completes a championship team in the early 2010s.

The Rays have shown a willingness to do it differently. This move, radical and right, would fit their modus operandi and make them better situated to win.

--

I wish I had something worthwhile to say about Nick Adenhart. I wish that I were smart enough, creative enough, sensitive enough, to dig inside and find words that would make this feel a little bit better. I have spent my day doing so, and not for you, reader, but for myself, and I have failed.

A 22-year-old man, who had just reached the apex of his profession, who had his career and his life laid out ahead of him, is dead, along with two of his friends, guilty of nothing other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I write a lot about fairness in baseball, but this isn't an unbalanced schedule or ill-conceived revenue sharing or an unjust draft. This is unfairness that makes you open a window and scream, makes you stare blankly at a screen, forgetting the last thought you had, because you keep flashing back to what 22 was like, and how good it felt, and how no one should have it taken away from them.

I don't know whether a moment like this is supposed to make you embrace God or question his existence. I suppose I've done both today.

I wish I could do more. This isn't enough. It could never be enough.

To the family, friends, teammates, and fans of Nick Adenhart, and to the victim who died with him, I offer my heartfelt sympathies. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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