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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 8

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Devil Rays v A's

Among baseball fans, the next player on our list of top prospects in Rays history may be best known for his part in one of the most ill-advised trades in recent history. Rays fans know him for his great work on the field as the franchise finally rose to prominence.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers

8. LHP Scott Kazmir

Acquired: Traded by Mets (2004)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 7 (2004) 11 (2002*), 12 (2003*)
Organization Top-30 ranks: 2 (2002*), 2 (2003*), 2 (2004*)
League Top-20 ranks: 2 (2003 South Atlantic League*), 4 (2004 Florida State League*)

Organization best tools: Best fastball (2004), Best Slider (2004)

*With Mets

Kazmir made his major league debut as a 20 year old with the Devil Rays in 2004, but he only threw 33 13 innings. Therefore, he was maintained his rookie eligibility, and also his eligibility for prospect lists. Only 13 pitchers 20 years old or younger since then have thrown 30-plus innings in a season, including Felix Hernandez twice. After the 2004 season, Hernandez was the only pitching prospect better than Kazmir, according to Baseball America.

The star lefty had rocketed through the minors that season. After 50 OK innings in the Florida State League, he was bumped up to Double A. Between the Mets’ and Rays’ Double-A affiliates, he threw 51 innings at that level before getting called up to the majors. He struck out 53 batters and allowed just 30 hits and 20 walks. With a mid-90s fastball, a sharp slider, and an improving changeup, he had three potential plus pitches, according to BA ($). He was generally throwing strikes, and he was a potential ace.

Kazmir always had the stuff — that’s why he was a first-round pick in 2002. In fact, BA’s report on him before the draft said that if he were taller, he could’ve been the top pick in the draft. Instead, his bonus demand allowed the Mets to land him with the 15th pick. They signed him for $2.15 million.

Using his electric fastball and hard slider, he dominated in his pro debut, albeit in just 18 innings. He allowed just one earned run on five hits and seven walks, and he struck out 34 batters with Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League. His dynamic stuff and good start in pro ball made him the No. 11 prospect in baseball.

BA’s report following that season noted the Mets were determined to not rush Kazmir through the minors. Kazmir had other ideas. In 76 1/3 innings in the South Atlantic League, he posted a 2.36 ERA with 105 strikeouts and 28 walks. The Mets had to move him quickly because that league wasn’t challenging him. He finished with 33 innings in the Florida State League, where he had a 3.42 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 16 walks.

As a 21 year old, Kazmir would become one of the faces of a Devil Rays team still a few years from contention. He led the league in walks with 100 in 186 innings, but he held his own. He struck out 174 batters with a 3.77 ERA.

In 2006, he made his first All-Star team. The most important thing he did was cut down on walks — his walk rate was down to 8.5 percent, and he struck out more than a batter an inning again.

However, there was a downside. In all of the scouting reports, from his amateur days to his time as a prospect, Kazmir’s stuff wasn’t questioned, nor was his potential to throw enough strikes with a nice delivery. His size, and in turn, his durability, were his only knocks. He went on the disabled list twice in 2006 with shoulder problems, and he pitched just 144 23 innings. He would later spend time on the DL in the 2008 and 2009 seasons as well.

When healthy, Kazmir was one of the best in the league. That was clear in 2007 when he led the league in strikeouts with 239 in a career-high 206 23 innings. From 2004-08 with Tampa Bay, he posted a 3.61 ERA with 783 strikeouts in 723 innings. He was one of the best young pitchers in baseball.

However, the decline began in 2009. Injuries, poor performance when on the field, and an increasing contract were the realities the Rays were facing. In August, they made a stunning trade, sending the 25 year old to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez, Alex Torres, and Matthew Sweeney.

Kazmir found immediate success with his new organization, pitching to a 1.73 ERA in six starts with the Angels. That success proved to be short lived. In his first full season out west, he was one of the worst starters in baseball with a 5.94 ERA in 150 innings. He only had 93 strikeouts. In 2011, he made one start with the Angels and was later released.

He did not appear in the majors again until 2013 with Cleveland. In the interim, he surfaced in the independent Atlantic League with the Sugar Land Skeeters. He had a 5.34 ERA in 64 innings, but in his time away from the spotlight, his fastball, which had lost so much bite over the years, was back.

After a nice season with Cleveland that saw him post a career-best walk rate and an improved strikeout rate, he signed a contract with Oakland. In 2014, he returned to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2008. In 50 starts with the A’s before being traded to Houston, he owned a 3.12 ERA with 265 strikeouts in 300 innings.

Now 34 and with the Braves, injuries have once against sidetracked Kazmir. A hip injury took another bite out of his stuff, and he missed the entire 2017 season with the Dodgers after pitching to a 4.56 ERA in 136 13 innings with Los Angeles the season before.

A consistently healthy Kazmir would have been a sight to see. He made three All-Star Games and led the league in strikeouts as a 23 year old. He’s probably one of the three best pitchers in franchise history so far, and it’s easy to wonder what could have been had he not had to go on the disabled list as often as he did.