Kazmir aims for fifth-starter assignment, at least in April

There are indications that veteran left-hander Scott Kazmir will open the season as a long reliever and move into the Braves’ rotation when the team needs a fifth starter for the first time, which could be as late as April 10, their 11th game.

“That’s what we’ve talked about, about aiming for that,” Kazmir said. “Everything can change obviously, but as of right now they were talking about (April) 8th or the 10th, would need the fifth starter. Not sure how everything’s going to play out, but those two dates are in mind.”

If the Braves used a fifth starter April 8, it would give No. 1 starter Julio Teheran an extra day of rest between his second and third starts – which would then be April 3 and April 9 – and also permit the Braves to keep their first four starters in the order as they’ll begin the season: Teheran followed by Mike Foltynewicz, Brandon McCarthy and left-hander Sean Newcomb.

If they wait and use a fifth starter for the first time April 10, that pitcher would fall in the No. 3 slot between Foltynewicz and McCarthy.

Hard-throwing rookie lefty Luiz Gohara, who was penciled into the opening-day rotation before straining his groin and then spraining an ankle in the first two weeks of camp, has been throwing and is beginning to ramp up his activities. Braves manager Brian Snitker thinks Gohara could be back by late April, so a fifth starter might get as few as three or four starts before Gohara is ready.

Kazmir, 34, has not done much to impress this spring, posting a 4.66 ERA and .303 opponents’ average in four starts while throwing his fastball in the 86-88 mph range most of the time. But two important factors to consider: The three-time former All-Star is healthy, after missing all of 2017 with the Dodgers for injuries including a balky hip, and he’s owed $16 million by the Braves, who almost certainly will give him an opportunity to earn that money.

Therefore it seems likely Kazmir would get at least a couple of starts to show what he can do in games that count. 

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was a Dodgers executive in 2016 when Kazmir struggled similarly at spring training, then went 10-6 with a 4.56 ERA, recording 134 strikeouts in 136 1/3 innings, winning five consecutive decisions and picking up some slack while Clayton Kershaw was injured, before Kazmir missed most of the last six weeks with thoracic spinal inflammation.

“That’s another thing Alex and I talked about, we kind of circled back to (2016),” Kazmir said, “I had some velocity issues in spring training; it was actually even lower than what it is now, it was 85 to 86 (mph). It slowly was coming up in the spring, but as soon as the first (regular season) game hit, it was 89 to 91. You know, when the lights came on. 

“We definitely have that in mind as well. At the same time, I keep saying there’s more in there. It’s just a matter of getting more consistent.”

Kazmir pitched in a minor league game this week and concentrated on his slider and being consistent in his pitching delivery.

“I changed my slider grip to my old slider grip that I threw in Tampa, something I haven’t done in a while,” said Kazmir, who twice was an All-Star with Tampa Bay and was 55-42 with a 3.92 ERA in 145 games over six seasons with the Rays before he was traded in 2009. 

“Used it against some lefties over there; it was working really well. Fastball’s still around 88, but it was more consistent around that speed.

“Main focus was kind of work on the hands, just get those moving a little faster. But yeah, all in all it was a productive day.”

Asked if he’s progressed since the beginning of spring training, Kazmir said, “Definitely in the right direction. I mean, I keep saying that, but it’s getting there. It’s just minor little adjustments right now just to be consistent as far as throwing the ball where I want to. I think that’s the last step. We’re just going to clean that up. It’s like I’m trying to push off a little bit (on the pitching rubber) to get the velocity going, and that’s kind of getting me out of whack, side to side sometimes. So it’s like, get that to where the consistency’s there, then kind of hone in on direction.”

Kazmir has a 108-96 career record and 4.01 ERA in 298 games (297 starts) over 12 seasons, including 10 or more wins in eight of 11 seasons since his rookie year. As a veteran with so much service time, he can’t be sent to the minor leagues without his consent.

The Braves haven’t asked him if he’d go to Triple-A for a period, and Kazmir said he’d rather pitch out of the major league bullpen than start a minor league game. The Triple-A Braves’ season doesn’t start until April 6, so that wouldn’t work anyway if the Braves planned to use Kazmir on April 8 or April 10.

“Yeah, I’d rather go out there and see big-league hitters in a big-league stadium,” he said. “I mean, that’d be great for me. So either way, I’m fine with it. For me it’s all about getting reps. However it plays out, I just want to go out and face some hitters.”

And if that means pitching out of the bullpen now or later, so be it.

“Yeah, that was definitely an option (discussed), where I’d be there in case a (starter) gets in trouble early,” he said.

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