Has there been another player that's brought Rays fans as much hope and excitement as Scott Kazmir? Well, actually yeah...there probably has been. Rocco Baldelli, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, David Price - all these players inspired hope in Rays fans back before we had any. But even among this class of players, I'd argue that Scott Kazmir stands in a class by himself.
When the Devil Rays traded Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir back in 2004, I remember being stunned. Even in my pre-saber days, I could tell that Victor Zambrano was no ace. He hadn't posted an ERA before 4 since a brief stint his rookie year, and he allowed waaaay too many baserunners to be successful. But apparently there was a General Manager out there even more ill-informed than Chuck LaMar -- new Mets GM Jim Duquette.
The Kamir trade was the first time I remember having legitimate excitement about the Devil Rays. While there were a number of young players on the club even then, the Devil Rays had always lacked pitching; as bad as he was, Victor Zambrano was legitimately the ace of the D-Rays' staff in 2004. But now we not only had a potential ace starter, but we had a young ace.
Kazmir was only 20-years-old at the time of the trade, but he entered into the rotation that season and posted a 3.77 ERA in his first full season in 2005. How impressive was that? Kazmir was only the third starting pitcher in D-Rays' history to post an ERA under 4 while starting in over 20 games. Let that sink in for a moment -- in the seven seasons before Kazmir entered the Rays' rotation full-time, the Rays only had two starters post an ERA under 4. The organization was starving for pitching talent, which made Kazmir such an exciting player. Finally, we could hope to have a favorable pitching matchup, even if it was just once every five days.
In an odd twist of fate, Kazmir was elected as an All-Star in 2006 and 2008 -- seasons where he only pitched in around 150 innings each -- but he wasn't selected in 2007, when he posted a 3.48 ERA and a career-high 5.3 WAR. As it turns out, 2007 was Kazmir's high-water mark -- he never recaptured the success he had that season, but entered a slow decline that has led to him being jobless at 27-years-old.
Most of the focus on Kazmir around here is on the return we got for him back in 2009, but it's worth remembering that he was the first legit ace for the franchise. I remember being so excited by him, I made sure to always be around for his starts. At least early in his career, he always seemed to rise to the occasion, and the stats bear it out: Kazmir finished his career with a 4.17 ERA, but he did decidedly better than that against the Red Sox (4.06 ERA) and Yankees (3.34 ERA).
Here's to all the great memories. Thanks for giving a poor franchise hope, Kaz.