Mets fans the world over rue this most terrible of trades, in which New York sent 20-year-old top prospect starting pitcher Scott Kazmir to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for perpetually mediocre hurler Victor Zambrano.
To this day, those in Mets-dom don’t understand the team’s convoluted thinking when they made that fateful transaction. Kazmir was a kid with a world of promise and upside that they were just giving away for a pitcher who had a 4.47 career ERA prior to the deal.
Sure, Zambrano had experienced some success in the minor leagues while pitching in Tampa Bay’s system. Before everyone was a strikeout pitcher, he was K-ing people with ease—he averaged more than a strikeout per inning in each of his first four professional seasons, and even in his first try in the majors, he did the same. With the Devil Rays in 2001, he struck out 58 batters in 51 innings in relief.
Key word there: Relief.
To that point, he had been nothing but a reliever, starting no more than 4 games in a professional season. Things took a turn for the worst when he shifted to the rotation.
Hits weren’t an issue, nor were home runs, but wildness killed him. In 114 innings in 2002, he surrendered 68 walks, threw 10 wild pitches and hit 5 batsmen. And the next year, he tossed 188 1/3 innings and led the league with 106 walks, 15 wild pitches and 20 HBP.
Between 2002 and 2003, his K/BB ratio was just 1.18.
Tampa Bay gave him one more shot in 2004, but by the trading deadline, had had enough. On July 30, they shipped him to New York with 29-year-old rookie hurler Bartolome Fortunato (himself wracked with control issues) for Kazmir and righty Jose Diaz (who was no major loss).
Zambrano had pitched 128 innings and walked a league-leading 96 batters at the time of the deal. No, he didn’t just lead the American League in bases on balls at the time of the trade, he paced the loop for the entire season, despite spending the second half of it in the NL. He also had 15 hit batters and a refreshingly low (lol) 5 wild pitches before his departure.
He pitched just one full season in New York, 2005, and for his part, managed to get his control under … uh … control, kind of. In 166 1/3 innings, he surrendered just 77 walks, but still clobbered 15 batters, which was second in the National League behind Jeff Weaver. And his 8 wild pitches were eighth in the league. To add insult to injury, he committed three errors, which were fourth-most among pitchers.
Dammit Zambrano, couldn’t you do anything right?
In 2006, he tortured Mets fans with only 5 mediocre starts before a bum elbow that eventually needed Tommy John surgery took him out of commission for the rest of the year. And Mets fans breathed a sigh of relief.
He was non-tendered following the campaign and granted free agency, but somehow fooled the Blue Jays into signing him for 2007. He had a 10.97 ERA with them before being let go. The Pirates signed him, but thought better of it and sold him to Baltimore, who threw him at the wall to help make their 4th-place, 69-93 season even worse, and it worked. He posted a 9.49 ERA in 12 1/3 innings there to finish out 2007, giving him a 10.17 mark for the year. In 23 innings, he allowed 22 walks to just 16 strikeouts.
Colorado signed him for 2008, but he was released without appearing in a game; the Yankees picked him up, but they, too, granted him free agency before he donned a big league uniform, because he performed too poorly in the minors (2-7, 7.17 ERA between 4 teams) for their liking.
And that is how all this comes full circle: Way back in 1993, Zambrano signed as an infielder by none other than the Yanks. He didn’t even play beyond rookie ball before they cut him loose—the first time—because his performance was so lackluster. So he converted to pitching.
And because New York tossed him aside, the ball started rolling, the gears were set into motion and here we are now, nearly 30 years later, writing an article about a terrible Mets trade involving Zambrano the failed infielder-turned-pitcher.
Isn’t that called, like, the butterfly effect or something?
For his part, Bartolome Fortunato, the other piece the Mets received, spent parts of two seasons with New York and had a 27.00 ERA in his last one.
As for Kazmir—did I say he was a top prospect? Now, that doesn’t do him justice. He was among the very, very best prospects three years in a row. Going into 2003, Baseball America ranked him number 11 in all the land, ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Zack Greinke. In 2004, he fell a spot to number 12, but was still ahead of Greinke, Cole Hamels and Adam Wainwright. And in 2005, he was rated at number 7—among the top ten percent of the very best prospects in the minor leagues—and he was still only 21 years old.
So, of course, it would make sense to trade him for such mediocrity that had flunked out of the minor leagues once already.
And though Kazmir never became a superstar—he didn’t even earn a Cy Young vote—he did rattle off a streak of four solid seasons from 2005 to 2008 in which he averaged 11 wins, 172 innings and 186 strikeouts per year, while posting a 3.51 ERA and 127 ERA+. In those few seasons, he made a couple All-Star Games and led the league in strikeouts in 2007, with 239.
He stumbled from 2009 to 2011 and didn’t play in the majors at all in 2012. Upon his return in 2013, however, he managed a run of three campaigns in which he averaged 11 wins, 177 innings and a 3.54 ERA per year; in 2015, he went 15-9 and earned his third All-Star selection.
The injury bug bit after 2016 and he pitched only briefly in the minors the next year, and not at all in 2018 or 2019.
But the desire to play was still there. After briefly appearing for the Eastern Reyes del Tigre of the independent Constellation Energy League in 2020, Kazmir mounted a major league comeback attempt and signed with San Francisco in February 2021. On May 22, he returned to a big league mound, tossing four innings, and surrendering just one run, against the Dodgers.
While Zambrano flamed out just a few years after joining New York, Kazmir went on to win 108 games and become the strikeout pitcher Zambrano was meant to be.
Kazmir has lost 97 games in his career. The Mets lost a whole lot more.