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The expectations will be big for new A’s starter Scott Kazmir, which comes with the territory when you sign a contract making you the highest-paid player on a team.
But that pressure might pale in comparison to the adversity the left-hander has overcome to this point in his roller coaster career.
Once one of the major leagues’ most promising left-handers, Kazmir veered so far off course in 2011 that the two-time All-Star was released by the Los Angeles Angels and found himself pitching for the independent-league Sugar Land Skeeters.
His comeback with the Cleveland Indians last season was enough to convince the A’s to sign him to a two-year $22 million deal, made official Wednesday after Kazmir passed a physical.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this organization,” said Kazmir, who turns 30 next month. “I’m already ready to get to spring training and get everything going.”
It came off like genuine enthusiasm from a pitcher who appreciates his re-emergence as a major league starter.
For the A’s, it’s a high-priced leap of faith on a guy that went just 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA with the Indians, his first full season in the majors since 2010.
Oakland was on the lookout for another rotation arm as it became apparent that a reunion with free agent Bartolo Colon wasn’t in the cards.
With Kazmir’s addition, it now seems that a trade of lefty Brett Anderson is more a case of when, not if. Assuming Anderson is dealt, and barring other pitching moves, Kazmir will slot into the A’s rotation alongside Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray, with A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone and Dan Straily fighting it out for the other two spots.
Though Kazmir’s 2013 record and ERA were pedestrian, he got better as the season wore on, posting a 3.38 second-half ERA and helping Cleveland earn a wild-card berth. The A’s saw him in particularly sharp form in May, when he struck out 10 and walked none in six innings of a 9-2 win over Oakland.
The Indians gave him extra rest around the midseason point when it appeared he might be experiencing a dead arm. But Kazmir finished strong, posting a 2.57 ERA in five September starts, striking out 43 and walking just four.
Importantly, Kazmir regained his fastball velocity last season, touching 95 mph and sitting in the 92-93 range. The A’s also liked that Kazmir showed an improving changeup to complement a slider that’s always been his put-away pitch.
“We liked his body of work last year,” A’s general manager Billy Beane said. “Having as much good starting pitching as you can get is something that’s helped make us successful. He’s 29 years old, so his age is good. The more we looked at it, the more we thought we should jump on the opportunity to bring him in.”
Did they overpay? Maybe, but even average pitchers are getting big-money deals this winter. Kazmir is left-handed, relatively young and considered to still have upside. No doubt he was going to get paid by someone.
The biggest issue is whether he can back up his 2013 rebound season.
Kazmir was a can’t-miss prospect who broke into the majors at age 20 with Tampa Bay. He led the A.L. with 239 strikeouts in 2007, but things took a bad turn after his 2009 trade to the Angels.
He went 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 2010. Kazmir lost his mechanics, which affected his location. He struggled mightily in spring training 2011, was placed on the D.L. with a back problem after one regular-season start and never returned to the big league rotation. The Angels released him in June 2011.
“I had to go to square one, re-teach myself fundamentals,” Kazmir said. “Maybe a minor injury made me compensate my delivery a bit and maybe just (changed) how I wanted to feel. I did a lot of video work, a lot of drills to pinpoint what was different.”
After a period of “self-evaluating,” Kazmir joined the pitching staff of the Sugar Land Skeeters, who play in the independent Atlantic League and were located near his home in Houston.
“To be honest, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “Being in Sugar Land, 20 minutes away from my house, it was a great forum to get back in the game.”
He continued rounding into form in the Puerto Rican Winter League last year, which helped him land a minor league contract with the Indians.
Now he’s found gold at the end of the rainbow with Oakland. His two-year deal at $11 million per season is the most money, in terms of annual salary, that the A’s have ever given a pitcher.
A’s manager Bob Melvin believes Kazmir may be a better pitcher based on the struggles he’s endured.
“He’s had the phenom tag on him since he got to the big leagues,” Melvin said. “Sometimes when you go through struggles, not only does it make you tougher, you have to be aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
To clear a spot for Kazmir on the 40-man roster, the A’s designated minor league left-hander Andrew Werner for assignment.