In 2012, youth was served. Mike Trout was the game’s best performer at age 20, while Bryce Harper had perhaps the best age-19 season in baseball history. Buster Posey won his first MVP at 25, while David Price became a Cy Young winner at 26. The A’s and Orioles both rode very young rosters into surprising playoff berths. It was a good year for the young.
There’s still some great young talent in baseball, and as Harper showed on Opening Day, he’s just getting started. However, this year, there are some interesting players to pay attention to on the other end of the spectrum. If 2012 was the year of the youngster, 2013 might just be the year of the reclamation project.
Scott Kazmir is the most high profile comeback story of the spring, as the Indians gave him a non-roster invite to camp after he showed some improved velocity during winter ball, and he ended up winning a spot in their rotation. Kazmir hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2011, and he only faced 14 batters — retiring just five of them — that year. In 2010, Kazmir’s last full year in the big leagues, he posted a -1.1 WAR, making him one of the worst pitchers in baseball that season.
Formerly a power pitcher, Kazmir was last seen throwing 87 MPH fastballs to the few batters he got to face in 2011, and his early decline was easily traced to his drop in velocity. Thanks to the fact that PITCHF/x cameras are installed in a few Cactus League ballparks, we can note that Kazmir’s fastball averaged 92 MPH this spring, and his slider was coming in around 81, the kind of velocity he hasn’t shown on his breaking ball since 2007. That year, Kazmir struck out 27% of the batters he faced and posted a +5 WAR season.
Getting the snap back on his slider is perhaps even more important than his fastball velocity, though the increase in both suggest that Kazmir’s arm may be healthier now than it has been in years. While spring training numbers aren’t usually worth the pixels they take to display, Kazmir’s 13/1 K/BB ratio in Cactus League action is also quite encouraging. It’s one thing to just throw hard again, but Broken Kazmir also couldn’t throw strikes with any regularity. The combination of velocity and missing bats while pitching within the strike zone suggests that there might actually be something to Kazmir’s return story.
Of course, the abdominal injury he suffered on Monday might slow his return, and is even threatening to land him back on the Disabled List, a reminder that durability is still a major question mark. For Kazmir, though, he has to at least be encouraged that it isn’t his arm that’s hurting this time, and a ribcage injury isn’t likely to shelve him for the entire season. If Kazmir is able to stay off the DL and make his return to the big leagues as scheduled on Saturday, don’t be too shocked if he looks more like he did in Tampa Bay than in Anaheim. Kazmir’s command has never been good enough to let him get by without his velocity, but now that he seemingly has it back, he could be a favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.
He won’t be the only one in the running, though. The AL features a pair of former hitting stars trying to get back to their prior glory, and both ended up as veteran reserves on young teams – Miguel Tejada in Kansas City and Jason Bay in Seattle. While Bay probably shouldn’t have beaten out Casper Wells for the final outfield job with the Mariners, there are some reasons to think that he might have something left to offer in a part-time role.
Even as his career fell apart with the Mets, Bay has still shown some effectiveness against left-handed pitching. In 338 plate appearances against southpaws since 2010, he’s hit .246/.355/.401. That might not look like an amazing performance, but it was good for a 112 wRC+, meaning that his overall offensive line against lefties was 12 percent better than the league average. Since he’s almost certainly going to get most of his starts when a southpaw is on the mound, Bay’s numbers could be in for a legitimate improvement simply due to the way he’s likely to be used. Now, given his lack of defensive value, Bay’s not going to be a great player even as a platoon bat against southpaws, and the younger guy he replaced also whacked lefties pretty well, but just from a career rejuvenation standpoint, Bay has a decent shot at posting better numbers than he has in years, simply because the Mariners should have the ability to keep him away from right-handed pitching.
The story is somewhat the same with Tejada in Kansas City, though we don’t have any 2012 Major League data for him. However, Tejada did get 288 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in 2010/2011, and he hit .246/.323/.449 against southpaws in those opportunities, good for a 108 wRC+. With left-handed hitting starters ahead of him on the depth chart at both second and third base, the Royals should be able to spell their starters against some LHPs and give Tejada a majority of his at-bats against opposite handed pitchers. While his bat might not be able to catch up to tough right-handers anymore, giving him a steady diet of lefties might just give him the career renaissance he’s looking for.
Over in the National League, the big reclamation project is Marlon Byrd, but unlike Bay and Tejada, he’s not getting protected in a reserve role. The Mets outfield experiment led them to give Byrd a starting job after a decent spring, so the 35-year-old is going to have to hit all comers to get his career back on track. With his aggressive approach at the plate, Byrd’s offensive value essentially has to come through hitting for power, which he didn’t do at all last year — only 3 of his 30 hits went for extra bases — before he was released by the Cubs.
However, while he was miserable for Chicago last year, it was barely more than a month’s worthy of playing time, and Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections expect his Isolated Slugging, basically in line with what he did back in 2011 when he was a solid role player for Chicago. If he finds his doubles power again, Byrd’s contact skills and athleticism should allow him to be a useful player for the Mets, and give him a better career sendoff than the ignominious ending he had last season.
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