Kazmir's winter may yield summer returns

Kazmir working hard this offseason

Scott Kazmir remembers how it felt in 2007 when, as Tampa Bay's resident ace, he could reach back and find whatever he needed to suit the occasion.

A typical sequence might go like this: mid-90s fastball on the black, followed by a big, overhand slider in a precise location to immobilize a hitter, then another heater to put him away.

The Angels' 26-year-old lefty wants that feeling of complete command back, and at home in Houston he has been busy this winter doing something about it.

"I'm a max-effort kind of guy," Kazmir said by phone on Thursday. "To repeat my delivery over and over takes a lot of core strength. That's what I've been working on this offseason, and I can really feel the difference."

At Houston Christian High School, Kazmir fine-tunes and focuses on specific areas -- notably the shoulder -- in a workout regimen alongside Carl Crawford (Rays), Adam Dunn (Nationals) and James Loney (Dodgers), athletes familiar to Major League fans.

"After the playoffs," said Kazmir, acquired by the Angels for three prospects on Aug. 28, "I came down to Houston and got to together with Lee Fiocchi. He's a trainer I'd met through Carl Crawford, who worked out with him last year.

"Three days a week, we go through a pretty extensive workout. It's a little bit of everything, mainly core. We do a lot of stuff on mats, squats, explosive reps, pushing a sled to get the lower half worked out. We do dead lifts, hip mobility stuff, things track athletes do.

"I've always worked out in the offseason before, but never with a set routine like this. With a stronger core, I think it will help me get more consistent with my velocity. I came off the mound with a lot more effort the last few years and didn't feel like I had it."

No longer the smoking gun who led the American League with 239 strikeouts in 2007, Kazmir was 9-8 with a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts with the Rays when they shipped him west for Angels prospects Sean Rodriguez, Alex Torres and Matt Sweeney.

In six starts with the Halos, refreshed by the change and reunited with former Rays pitching coach Mike Butcher, Kazmir delivered a glittering 1.73 ERA, with 26 strikeouts against only 10 walks in 36 1/3 innings.

An offense that produced runs in bunches all year oddly fell silent when he was on the mound, accounting for his modest 2-2 record after the trade.

"I felt like I was starting to get it back with the Angels," Kazmir said.

In the postseason, he struggled through a pair of starts. One had a happy ending, the other leaving a sour taste.

Kazmir got through six innings in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, yielding five runs before watching his club rally dramatically in the ninth to complete a sweep.

Unhinged by inconsistent command and a compact strike zone, he lasted only four innings of Game 4 at Angel Stadium against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series. He yielded four runs on six hits and four walks while striking out three.

Returning in the late innings of the season finale, Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, Kazmir uncorked a wild throw to first for an error that seemed to symbolize the club's frustrating end to a great season.

At 6-foot and 190 pounds, Kazmir is not a big man, by pitching standards. That's why core strength and leverage are so important in terms of getting deeper in games, one of his aims for 2010.

"If I'm more consistent with my delivery and more economical with my pitches," he said, "I'll have a lot more life, and that'll get me deeper in games.

"More core strength will take pressure off my body. My legs will be stronger, and I won't be falling off the mound when I get tired."

In 26 starts in 2009, Kazmir averaged 5.7 innings -- a number he knows he needs to improve.

In his breakthrough season of 2005, Kazmir made 32 starts, averaging 5.8 innings per outing.

In 2007 -- his best season sandwiched between a pair of All-Star appearances in '06 and '08 -- he reached 206 2/3 innings, averaging 6.1 in a career-high 34 starts.

If he can reach or surpass that level, sustaining his delivery and command late in games, the lefty has all the right stuff to front a rotation again.

"I think some of the things that are going to make Scott a better pitcher this year are already in place this winter with what he's doing working out," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

"I know what Kaz tries to do in Spring Training. I think it's going to benefit us more than maybe Kaz, because our evaluation process is going to be easier as we see a guy from start to finish during the season."

Even without the bark of big dog John Lackey, who took the free-agent train to Boston, Kazmir is confident the Angels will be in good hands when the rotation starts spinning in April, from Jered Weaver through Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, newcomer Joel Pineiro and into his own hands.

"Pineiro is known for getting deep in games," Kazmir said. "He's a huge pickup for us. It's going to be a solid five, no question, top to bottom."

In a relatively young group, Pineiro is the elder statesman at 31. The youngest of the quintet is Kazmir, the two-time All-Star who is reaching back to find that old feeling.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.