KEONE KELA, RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: April 16, 1993
Height: 6′ 1″
Drafted: 12th Round, 396th Overall, 2012 (Rangers)
How Acquired: Trade (from Rangers for Taylor Hearn)
College: Everett (WA) CC
Agent: Wasserman Media Group
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|Kela is a hard-throwing reliever who progressed quickly through the Rangers’ system. He’s never started a game as a pro and has strictly been a short reliever. His fastball sits close to 97 mph, topping out at 99, and has good movement. He sometimes reached triple digits in the minors. Kela’s secondary pitch is a curve that he throws over a third of the time and that has very good break. He’s always had high strikeout rates and usually hasn’t had control issues. He dominates right-handed hitters to an extreme degree, but has sometimes had trouble with left-handed hitters, especially in 2018. He’s not particularly a groundball or flyball pitcher. Kela has had some arm problems: elbow surgery due to bone chips in 2016 and a sore shoulder that cost him time in the second half of 2017. The Pirates acquired him in a deadline deal in 2018.
Kela got off to a strong start for the Rangers in nine relief appearances in rookie ball. His fastball velocity increased to the upper-90s. Baseball America rated him Texas’ 26th best prospect after the season.
The Rangers sent Kela initially to low A and, after a rough first outing, he went out for a month with arm tightness. After returning he was very effective for a month, then missed another two weeks. He spent August and September in short season ball, not pitching as effectively but still striking out lot of hitters. He pitched well in the Arizona Fall League and BA rated him 18th in the system after the season.
Kela started the season in high A, but the Rangers moved him up to AA after just eight games. He continued to miss bats at a high rate, but did have control issues in AA. BA again rated him the team’s 18th best prospect.
Kela made the Rangers’ bullpen out of spring training and, other than a brief trip to AA in August, spent the season there. He was deadly against right-handed hitters, allowing them just a 194/229/299 line. Against left-handed hitters he was ordinary, with a line of 289/373/367. The control problems he had in AA the previous year didn’t recur.
Kela struggled in April and eventually was out of action from late April to mid-July. He had surgery to remove bone chips and pitched initially well once he returned, but struggled increasingly in August and especially September.
Kela had a great first half, but appeared in only nine games in the second half due to shoulder soreness that put him on the disabled list twice. He ultimately had stem cell therapy to address the problem. On the season, right-handed hitters batted a miniscule 113/220/150 against him. Left-handed hitters had a 170/267/377 line. Kela was helped by an extremely low batting average on balls in play of .179, which likely isn’t repeatable. His xFIP of 4.08 was obviously less impressive than his ERA.
Kela spent the first four months of the season as the Rangers’ closer. He wasn’t as dominant as the previous year, but was still effective and blew only one save in 25 chances. His platoon splits were stronger than ever, as left-handed hitters posted a robust 321/367/518 line against him and right-handers just 125/220/188. The Pirates acquired him at the deadline for Taylor Hearn and a player to be named later. After the trade the Pirates utilized Kela in both the 7th and 8th innings. He pitched very well, allowing runs in just two of his 16 outings for them. Surprisingly, they shut him down after September 3. Both Kela and the team denied that there was any injury, with the Pirates saying they wanted to keep his workload down. He’d only pitched 52 innings, so it’s uncertain what caused the concern.
Kela opened the season as the Pirates’ setup man, but his season had a lot of bumps. He got off to a rough start, at one point giving up runs in four straight games and five of six. In early May, he went on the injured list with right shoulder “discomfort.” He went on rehab late in the month, but was shut down when the problem resurfaced. He finally returned in late July, but was suspended for two games by the Pirates for getting into an altercation with a coach. Shortly afterward, he got suspended for ten games for admittedly throwing at a batter. He then finished the season as the team’s closer due to Felipe Vázquez being arrested, but there were almost no save opportunities. From the time Kela returned from the shoulder problem in July, he pitched extremely well. In his last 18 outings, opponents batted just 131/232/197 against him. On the season, he continued to have a large platoon split, holding right-handed hitters to an OPS of .540 while left-handed hitters managed .708.
Closers on teams that have no chance of contending don’t have much value, but the Pirates showed no interest in trading Kela during the off-season. The decision worked out badly. Kela missed the beginning of the season when he tested positive for COVID-19. He returned in mid-August, but left his third game with forearm tightness and missed the rest of the season. That ruined the Pirates’ chances of trading him at the deadline.
Kela will be a free agent after the season and will go elsewhere.
|Signing Bonus: $100,000
MiLB Debut: 2012
MLB Debut: 4/7/2015
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2020
Rule 5 Eligible: Protected
Added to 40-Man: 4/5/2015
Options Remaining: 3
MLB Service Time: 6.000
|June 7, 2011: Drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 29th round, 873rd overall pick.
June 5, 2012: Drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 12th round, 396th overall pick; signed on June 7.
April 5, 2015: Contract purchased by the Texas Rangers.
July 31, 2018: Traded by the Texas Rangers to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel.