Scott Kazmir wasa nine-year-old wisp of a boy when he got his first memorable pitching lesson.His teacher: a friend, five years his elder, named Adam Dunn. The two wereplaying Wiffle ball at the Dunn family ranch in Porter, Texas, when Adam, nowan All-Star outfielder for the Reds, stopped to give Scott some pointers."He started teaching me how to wind up and throw with different grips,"recalls Kazmir, whose father, Eddie, worked for the Texas welding supplycompany run by Dunn's uncle. "I'm pretty sure he had no idea what he wastalking about, but I don't think he screwed me up too badly."
Bad advice iseasily overcome when you're as gifted as Kazmir, a baby-faced 22-year-old whoowns a mid-90s fastball and a killer slider. With only 12 career wins, thelefty begins his second full season in the majors facing Texas-sizedexpectations: Hailed as the Lone Star state's potential heir to Nolan Ryan andRoger Clemens, he is already Tampa Bay's ace. At 6 feet and 170 pounds, Kazmiralso represents a slender Ray of hope for an eight-year-old franchise thathasn't had a team ERA south of 4.80 for seven straight seasons and has neverproduced a 15-game winner.
"We'reconfident we're going to score enough runs," says executive vice presidentAndrew Friedman, whose young lineup (no regular is older than 30) got a boostlast year from 24-year-old second baseman Jorge Cantu (his 28 homers led theteam) and 25-year-old DH-outfielder Jonny Gomes (.534 slugging percentage)."What's less known is our pitching staff, and that's why Scott is extremelyimportant to this organization. We're expecting him to anchor our staff formany seasons to come."
Tampa Bay got atantalizing glimpse of Kazmir's potential during the second half of lastseason, when he used his full array of pitches--including a looping curveballand a fast-improving changeup--and went 7--2 with a 2.79 ERA and 92 K's in 84innings. While the coaching staff kept Kazmir on a short leash, never lettinghim work past the seventh inning, he still finished fourth in the AL with 174strikeouts. But pitching coach Mike Butcher remains focused on another stat:Kazmir's league-high 4.84 walks per nine innings (minimum 162 innings)."When he learns to improve his control," Butcher says, "he will bean elite pitcher."
Just asimpressive as Kazmir's repertoire is his poise. "When you've got a youngpitcher going up against AL East teams, the results can be disastrous no matterhow talented he is," says catcher Toby Hall. "What I saw with Scott isthat he actually gets better as the stage gets bigger. He won games at FenwayPark and Yankee Stadium, pitching like he was in his own backyard."
New York nearlybecame Kazmir's backyard. A first-round draft pick by the Mets in 2002, he wasdealt to Tampa Bay two years ago for righthander Victor Zambrano in a dealthat's made more than one list of Worst Mets Trades Ever on fan blogs."When the trade went down, I was pretty devastated--I was excited aboutbeing in New York, already thinking about which Manhattan neighborhood I wantedto live in," he says. "But all that's behind me."
There's not muchbehind Kazmir in the Rays' rotation: Righthander Seth McClung was demoted twiceto the minors in 2005 and lasted fewer than three innings in four of his 17starts, and in July lefty Mark Hendrickson became the franchise's first pitcherto fail to retire a batter in a start (an outing at Fenway). On the way,however, is the best crop of young arms that the team has ever had.Righthanders Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel and Jamie Shields will likely startthe season at Triple A Durham but are expected to get work in the majors thisseason.
With the Oriolesin shambles, the Rays have a shot to escape the division cellar for just thesecond time in their eight seasons. Is there reason for increased optimism inTampa? "We were five games over .500 in the second half last year, and weexpect to build from that," Friedman says. "There's no question thatwe've now got the talent to be playing meaningful games in September soonenough."
Devil Rayspitchers issued the most walks in the majors (615) in 2005; the club's hittersdrew the second fewest (412). The last club to finish at the bottom in bothcategories was the 1972 Angels.
a modest proposal
Midway throughcamp the Devil Rays demoted B.J. Upton (right) to Triple A Durham, where he'llagain turn scouts' heads with his bat--and first basemen's heads with hiserrant throws. Tampa Bay is determined to give the 21-year-old future staranother try at shortstop, but third base, where Tampa Bay is likely to useretreads Sean Burroughs and Ty Wigginton, is the sensible alternative. Considerthis list of players who began their pro careers at short, only to blossom atanother position: Hank Aaron, George Brett, Eric Davis, Mickey Mantle, PaulMolitor, Mike Schmidt, Gary Sheffield and Carl Yastrzemski.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
fifth in ALEast
first season withTampa Bay
TY WIGGINTON [Newacquisition]
1731201.755.89 RH Chad Orvella 123 3 3 1 1.40 3.60 RH Jesus Colome 158 2 3 0 1.59 4.57
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer ...
Armed with a97-mph fastball, Jeff Niemann, 22, the Devil Rays' first-round draft pick in2004, was on the fast track to the majors last summer--striking out 42 in 302/3combined innings at Class A and Double A--before shoulder soreness in Mayderailed his progress. The 6'9" righty is still recovering from Octobersurgery that shaved the joint between his collarbone and shoulder, but he's dueto start throwing off the mound next month.
WILD THING Kazmir finished fourth in the league with 174 strikeouts but also struggled with his control, walking 100.
CHUCK SOLOMON (UPTON)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (NIEMANN)