Name: Sean Kazmar
DOB: August 5, 1984
Kazmar came into the year hoping to build upon the success of previous seasons. He had established himself as a solid defensive second baseman with solid skills with the stick, a patient approach and surprising pop.
Tasked with the challenge of Double-A, Kazmar faltered offensively.
"Kaz was a little tough," former San Antonio and current Fort Wayne hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "I felt bad – he was one of those guys where I wish I could have did more for. I had him the year before and he did fairly well. He had a really good second half last year. He is still a young player.
"You don't know if a guy is ready to go to Double-A until he goes and you see what happens. He started out swinging the bat all right, but he couldn't maintain the things he needed to do. I take some blame for that because there is probably a few things along the way that maybe we should have did or tried to help him maintain his swing.
"He did have some streaks where he swung the bat well. We just couldn't maintain that."
Over 78 games with the San Antonio Missions, the infielder hit .208 with a paltry .278 on-base percentage. His walk totals dropped, and while he was putting bat to ball, he wasn't swinging at his pitch and chasing outside of the zone more often than not.
"I still like Sean to help out the big leagues as a utility guy," Padres former minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He has great makeup, can play shortstop, second base, is a fighter. I think he will find a way to the big leagues and be a utility guy."
Kazmar was sent down to High-A Lake Elsinore to recoup some of the shine he lost. He responded well, hitting .284 over 47 games – getting back to the basics that saw him see success in previous seasons.
One thing that called to his tremendous makeup was he never complained and accepted the demotion for what it was – a chance to learn and grow as a prospect.
In the past, Kazmar has been short to the ball, using a compact stroke to get the job done. His swing will get long when he is swinging for the fences. The former Rebel may be short in stature, but he can pack a wallop when he uses he connects square with a ball.
This past year, Kazmar never got into a groove and his approach at the plate changed. It seemed he was trying to do too much, and his mechanics suffered as a result. He could not find the rhythm and tried to hack his way out of the slumps.
Eventually, Kazmar's confidence went in the tank and there was no climbing out of it.
"He handled the middle of the plate in very well," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He needs to work on the middle-away and hitting the ball to right-center. He has been doing that and working on that. He got better towards the end. I think that is the reason he struggled at Double-A – because the middle-outside of the plate was hurting him. He improved on that."
Getting sent down was a wakeup call of sorts. He realized that he was not having fun and letting the game consume his mind.
"He is a talented kid who brings a lot of skill on both sides of the game," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He has just never been able to put both sides together.
"Last year, he opened up at Double-A and struggled a little bit. We moved him down to Elsinore and he handled it like a pro, never complained. I think he knew deep down inside that he needed to go back and get things cleaned up, getting a restart, which I think he did."
Kazmar maintained his hard-working approach and rediscovered his confidence – coinciding with his attitude change that predicated he also wear a smile. It became easier to think about simplifying the game and forgetting any mechanical adjustments he was making. Instead of thinking about where his hands were at the dish or sulking if he got out, he focused on hitting the ball and hitting it hard. Results followed.
"I think after talking to him a little bit it was a little bit more mental issues and maybe not so much mechanical," former Lake Elsinore and current Portland hitting coach Max Vebale said. "When Kaz came down, I saw he was not really Kaz. I had him the year before, and he was always a guy that had a lot of energy and showed it on the field. He wasn't showing that.
"He wasn't playing that well in San Antonio. I talked to him and said, ‘You have to salvage what is left of this year.' I noticed his attitude wasn't that great. He was kind of down. I told him, ‘You have to change your attitude.' We talked about that and it went from there. He showed himself to prove he belongs – showed he was not giving up and showed he still has the ability to play like Kaz knows how. He ended up playing quite well."
The infielder has the ability to close in on .300, but needs to understand what pitches he can drive and attack only those pitches.
"He has been with us out there for three years, and hopefully he understands there are some changes with his approach that he needs to clean up," vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "I hope he is prepared to do that." He has some lift in his swing but will open up a little too early, draining away some of the power he has. A more patient approach will allow the ball to get deeper, where he can turn on it and use his entire body to generate bat speed and consistent, hard contact.
There have been concerns over his pitch selection, and he will have to improve upon that aspect of his game to take his game to the next level.
Kazmar is prone to swinging at a pitcher's pitch, making him an easy out at times. There are other times, however, that Kazmar's excellent bat control has him fighting off pitch after pitch and seeing the ball well. Molding the two into a cohesive unit, selecting only his pitches, and letting his natural athleticism and bat speed do the rest will up his average.
If he continues to expand the zone, Kazmar will have trouble adjusting and his batting average will suffer.
Along with his demotion to Lake Elsinore, Kazmar was moved over to shortstop where he dazzled fans and teammates alike.
He showed excellent range to both sides of the field, soft hands, and a cannon arm. A former shortstop in college, Kazmar saved several runs during his time at shortstop in Lake Elsinore and the pitching staff grew in confidence thanks, in part, to his play up the middle of the diamond.
"He proved to us that this kid can play short," said Fuson. "The shortstop job in San Antonio is his to lose, the way I look at it."
"He did a great job at shortstop," Venable said.
Always seen as a sure-handed defender, Kazmar upped his level of play by making some spectacular plays that would have landed him on ‘Sportscenter'. He also made the routine ones and solidified himself as a true shortstop heading into 2008.
"When Ciriaco got hurt, I put him at short," Lezcano said. (Juan) Ciriaco hurt his lower back, and I put him at short. After three or four games there, he got used to it and made some outstanding plays. He is has a good arm and plays good defense.
"He can really play short and could be a utility guy some day that can play short and second and third. To be a utility guy, you have to be able to play shortstop. There are no utility players in the big leagues that can't play short. He could be a good utility player at the higher levels."
"He has been with us out there for three years, and hopefully he understands there are some changes with his approach that he needs to clean up, and I hope he is prepared to do that," Fuson added. "This kid is an interesting kid to me. He does a lot of good things."
ETA: Having proven he can play multiple positions on the infield, the Padres believe Kazmar possesses major league ability – as long as his bat can become more consistent, and he stays within the gameplan the Padres have dictated. If he can make those strides offensively, Kazmar can be in the big leagues by 2009 and fighting for a permanent utility job the year after.