Scott Kazmir’s long road leads to opportunity in Atlanta

Scott Kazmir has just about seen it all on his journey through professional baseball. That 16-year odyssey has led him to the Atlanta Braves with his career once again seemingly at a crossroads.

He’s been there before.

Traded. Injured. Working his way back. Looking for an opportunity to pitch every fifth day. All familiar territory for Kazmir, who is now 34 years old and coming off a season in which he did not pitch in the big leagues. This isn’t the first time.

If he wants to crack the Atlanta rotation, Kazmir has his work cut out for him in a crowded camp this spring. It’s a camp that’s filled with the same kind of first round talent he once was for the New York Mets about a decade and a half ago. The Braves have 12 former first round picks in big league camp, with nine of those men vying to impact the big league rotation at some point in 2018.

Kazmir went from first round pick in New York to top prospect, to Tampa Bay in a trade deadline deal, to American League strikeout leader, to All-Star and found himself pitching in the World Series. That all happened in a whirlwind six-year run, and he did all of this by the age of 24.

Then the Rays traded Kazmir to the Angels in 2009. That’s when things began to unravel. His time in Los Angeles was marred by injury and inconsistency and he was released in 2011. After a short and unsuccessful stint in independent ball in 2012, it appeared his career might just be over.

He was 27 years old. He’d lost his fastball. He’d lost his slider. He’d lost his command.

Then the comeback began.

With the work of personal coaches and trainers, Kazmir reestablished himself as a top flight starting pitcher. He signed a minor league deal with the Indians in 2013 and was back in the All-Star game as a member of the Oakland Athletics just one year later. Kazmir returned to his hometown of Houston to pitch for the Astros in 2015 and then signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers.

It would seem the story has a happy ending, but the injuries continued to put hurdles in front of the veteran lefty. A hip injury sidelined Kazmir for the entire 2017 season. Now he is in camp with the Braves and hoping his book has more chapters left to write.

It’s time for yet another comeback.

WATCH: Here’s Scott Kazmir’s first bullpen session with the Braves from Thursday. He told me afterwards that he was feeling good. Manager Brian Snitker added, “It looked like the ball was coming out pretty good, so it was encouraging. I was excited to see him out there and it looked okay for me for where he’s been. Again, we’ll just take all that a day at a time and see where we’re at.”

Here’s my Q&A with Scott Kazmir:

Grant McAuley: I’m sure it’s good to get back to baseball. How are you feeling as Spring Training begins?

Scott Kazmir: “Definitely feel better than I have for the past however many years. I put in a lot of work in the offseason. Different game plan, different program I guess I’d say and I’ve never felt better.”

GM: You’ve dealt with injury. You’ve dealt with all kinds of different things and had a unique journey through major league baseball. What was this past year like for you, not being able to pitch last year and having to work your way back?

SK: It was frustrating for a lot of different reasons. A lot of stuff I don’t want I get into because it will take you down a dark road, you know what I mean? You know, it was unfortunate, the situation [with the hip injury last season>, but where I’m at right now, that’s something that I’m not looking back. I’m really excited moving forward and I’m happy where I’m at.”

GM: As far as the physical road back, how do you feel coming into camp and what’s it been like to get back on the field and be around your new teammates?

SK: “I felt really good. I changed my program up. I was always a big weight lifting type of guy in the offseason. I always tried to bulk up and get stronger, but I definitely changed. I did yoga, pilates and all that stuff pretty much the entire offseason. Did some light weight stuff just to keep my arm in shape, but mainly focusing on that [flexibility>. Focusing on baseball-specific stuff, just pitching and working drills to cement a good delivery. I’m really pleased with how the offseason went.”

GM: It’s a new year and a new team for you. When you heard about the trade in December, what was your reaction to joining the Braves?

SK: “Very excited, very excited. This is one of the teams that I actually grew up watching. Hard to believe but more than the Astros, because when I was a kid the Astros were always blacked out [on local television>, so I never got a chance to watch them. But I was always able to watch the Braves on TBS. It’s surreal to be able to wear this uniform knowing that all the guys in the past that I’ve watched over the last couple of decades were wearing this uniform and wearing it with pride and just kind of playing the game the right way. I feel like that’s something you don’t really see too much in this game anymore. I’m proud to be a part of this organization.”

GM: MLB Network aired its “Atlanta Rules” special this week that looked back on the 90s Braves. It showed how the Braves had fans coast to coast and everywhere in between. Older guys had mentioned to me that Houston was one of those places…

SK: “Definitely. I believe it, just because of what I said before with the TV situation. We never really got to see too many games unless you went to the park, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to go the park as much as I’d like to. It was the Braves. It was TBS that I would always watch. I was always watching baseball and that was the channel that was always on.”

GM: How are you feeling this spring. Are there any limitations?

SK: No limitations. I’m just looking to go out there and progress. I’m just going to take one day at a time and not really look to far ahead. Just continue to progress. You know, I feel good where I’m at and I’m going to keep the same game plan.

GM: I know the focus for you is on being healthy and going out there and competing, but this is a relatively young club with a lot of young starting pitchers. You were in their place at a time. As a veteran, what do you see your role being when it comes to having a locker room full of guys who could look up to you for some of the knowledge that you can provide?

SK: “I feel like I’ve kind of been in that situation the last four or five years and I’ve embraced it. You don’t want to tell kids too much, but at the same time provide a little bit of guidance and a little bit of that team chemistry. Stuff like that, I feel like it’s important to have that veteran in the clubhouse to kind of guide people. If there are any questions you can bounce it off of veterans like that. It’s just really important to have those guys in the clubhouse and around. It’s really got to the point where it’s a little bit unappreciated and you see how the teams evolve when you have that right group of veterans kind of leading the way for all the young guys on a team.

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