After nearly falling completely out of baseball in 2012, Scott Kazmir latched on to the Cleveland Indians on a minor league deal. Though he was five years removed from his best season in Tampa Bay, and had really only been healthy for one full season in his career, he was seen as a nice, moderate-upside signing for an Indians team that was struggling to find a fifth starter. A strong spring training earned him a spot on the big league club, and he rewarded the Indians’ faith in him by throwing 158 innings of 4.04 ERA, 1.32 WHIP ball. Now a free agent, Kazmir is not expected to re-sign with the Indians, nor is he expected to get much more than a one year deal with team options.
The Cubs, under the direction of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, have made a habit of targeting pitchers of Kazmir’s profile. Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, and Paul Maholm have all been pitchers with moderate upside, very real risk, and expected to sign short-term deals. These signings have been effective in two of the three instances, and Kamir would likely improve the Front Office’s record to three for four.
When healthy in 2013, Kazmir pitched quite well. His 3.45 SIERA ranked 19th of 96 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings, ahead of guys like Cole Hamels, Francisco Liriano, and Patrick Corbin. His 3.51 FIP ranked 38th. Kazmir saw his strikeout rate return in a strong way, while also issuing free passes at the best rate of his career. His 24.1% K% was 16th amongst starting pitchers in baseball, and would have led all Cubs starters. His 7.0% BB% was 46th, and would have been the best rate amongst all Cubs starters outside of Scott Feldman.
Altogether, Kazmir produced somewhere around 2.5 wins according to both FanGraphs and BaseballProspectus. There’s reason to believe these numbers were no fluke, either. Kazmir’s fastball averaged over 92 mph for the first time since his outstanding 2007 campaign, and his swinging strike percentage was over 10% for the first time in many years, too. Kazmir was also above AL SP averages in strike%, contact%, and zone-contact%. He really did pitch well in 2013.
Kazmir has never been durable, and it would be foolish to expect him to be durable in the future. But Kazmir doesn’t need to throw 200 innings to be a valuable contributor to the 2014 Cubs. Steamer projects him to be worth roughly 2.7 wins in just 144 innings, and whether he throws 140 or 160 innings, a win total of 2.5 is reasonable to expect. In the five to seven starts he misses over the season, the Cubs have Carlos Villanueva to pick up the slack. If he pitches as a starter like he did in 2013, he could provide up to half a win in Kazmir’s absence. All of a sudden, the Cubs could expect 3 wins out of their 4th/5th starter slot, very respectable production from the back-end of the rotation, especially at the money it would cost them. If Wood, Shark, and Jackson are all in the rotation and pitch like they did last season (2-3 wins), the Cubs are looking at a starting rotation that is at least league-average, if not a tick better.
Obviously, 3 wins from one back-end rotation slot does not make the Cubs a contender, but signing Kazmir wouldn’t just be about winning games in 2014. If he got a team option, or a second year on his deal, Kazmir would be a nice rotation piece for a hopefully-decent 2015 Cubs team. That second year would also make Kazmir an attractive trade chip in July. I know we’re all growing tired of the sign-and-flip strategy the Cubs have employed the last few seasons, but it is an important strategy that will continue to improve the Cubs’ farm system and chances to build a lasting contender. If Kazmir is cheap and pitches close to his 2013 ERA estimators, you have to believe he’d fetch a nice return at the deadline.
I don’t know what Kazmir will end up signing for, but if it’s anything less than $9 million with an option for 2015, I think he provides his team with serious surplus value. And at that figure, the injury risk is not so strong as to break a team’s budget. He’s a high-strikeout pitcher with good enough command, and has the ability to provide the Cubs value on the field and in trade. He’s a great low-risk signing, and I really hope the Cubs make a run at him.