COMMENTARY | In 2009, the Tampa Bay Rays traded away wunderkind pitcher Scott Kazmir, a first-round draft pick in 2002 and an All-Star in 2006 and 2008, to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a handful of magic beans.
At the time, Rays fans were puzzled. In 2007, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts with 237 and tallied 13 of the team's mere 64 wins. He was AL Pitcher of the Month -- a franchise first -- in May 2008 when he went 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA. That hot start eventually helped Tampa Bay reach the World Series for the first time.
Apparently the Rays knew something. Since leaving the team, Kazmir has been a bust. Always fragile, he put up one decent season for the Angels, and then began a steady downhill slide that led to stints with the independent Atlantic League Sugar Land (TX) Skeeters and the Gigantes de Carolina in Puerto Rico before a return to the bigs with Cleveland this year (4-4, 4.83 ERA).
But one of those magic beans has sprouted and is taking root in Tampa Bay.
Wicked Change Has Opposing Hitters Batting a Puny .087
The Kazmir deal brought the Rays utilityman Sean Rodriguez -- a fair enough return -- and pitcher Matt Sweeney, who never left the minors. It also brought lefty pitcher Alex Torres, a move that raised not a single eyebrow at the time.
At a glance, there's nothing special about Torres. He's not physically imposing; he doesn't have some kind of weird delivery; his stuff doesn't appear to be overwhelming, though his fastball tops out at a respectable 94 mph; and he has a wicked changeup that sometimes makes hitters look foolish.
But in 11 appearances in middle relief, he has given up just a single run and put up a 2-0 record. Over 21 innings, Torres has struck out 28 batters and sports a 0.43 ERA with a ridiculous 0.57 WHIP. Opposing batters are managing a puny .087 BA when he's on the bump.
I'm not suggesting closer Fernando Rodney should be looking over his shoulder (not this week anyway). But with the Rays pitching scuffling, anybody putting up numbers like this is a calm port in a storm.
Excess of Starters Sent Torres to the Tampa Bay Bullpen
Torres was born in Valencia, Venezuela in 1987. He did not go to college. He was not drafted. He learned baseball in the true tropical tradition, spending hardscrabble days hurling a horsehide held together with dirt and snot and doing it better than any of the other kids around him. A scout with the Angels signed him as an amateur free agent in 2005.
Torres was primarily a starter in the minors and the Rays originally forecast him in that role. Not now.
"I've been so impressed with what he's doing," manager Joe Maddon said in a recent post-game press conference. "We all have. For me, I think my mindset, we have enough of the [Jake] Odorizzis and the [Alex] Colomes and the [Chris] Archers and all those guys that are able to fulfill that starting role. I think what he's doing right now is very beneficial to us, and his own personal career. And there's no guarantee to say that if he started if he would pitch equally well as he has right now. I don't know that. I just know what I'm seeing has been really good."
Torres' performance -- and Rodriguez's contributions at multiple positions -- are made all the sweeter by the fact that the team essentially gave up nothing for either player.
Kazmir Deal Paid Off Coming and Going for Tampa Bay
In mid-2004, Tampa Bay sent two pitchers, the notoriously bad Victor Zambrano (he led the American League in walks, wild pitches and hit batsmen in 2003 and did it again in 2004 -- despite being shipped to the National League midseason) and the notoriously unheard of Bartolome Fortunato (career numbers: 2 wins, 6.21 ERA and 25 Ks) to the Mets for their 2002 No. 1 draft pick: a kid named Kazmir.
Now Torres is shooting out the lights in a bullpen where his presence could not be more critical. With the pitching still (atypically) sputtering and David Price and Alex Cobb sidelined, Maddon must be ever-ready to dip into the bullpen early in any game.
Torres' consistency is no doubt a comfort. While he has helped the Rays to a 41-38 record in the best division in baseball, his more important contribution might be helping his manager get a little sleep at night.
Chip Carter is a 20-year veteran of the national media who has written for hundreds of publications and websites around the world, sometimes covering the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays from his home base in Tampa.
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