Koll: Mysterious Suspension The Latest In Kela's Bizarre Pirates Career

Matt Koll
July 23, 2019 - 1:10 pm
Keone Kela

Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

It was hard not to enjoy the aggressiveness the Pirates and Neal Huntington showed by acquiring Keone Kela to bolster the bullpen.

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It was hard not to be excited about a 25 year-old controllable closer with 24 saves on the year with the Texas Rangers, joining one of the best closers in baseball in Felipe Vazquez and working in tandem to help nail down games.

Then he came to Pittsburgh.


The Pirates traded for Kela at the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. They also made a deal for Chris Archer the very same day. But for whatever reason, travel issues or otherwise, Archer reported to the team wearing an Antonio Brown jersey (not great in retrospect) and Kela did not report to the team until two days later.

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We never quite got an explanation of why Kela had taken the extra time to come to Pittsburgh.

Although the Bucs got trounced by the Cubs 9-2 in the game that he missed, they certainly wanted him here as soon as possible as they were 56-52 and just three games back of the final NL Wild Card spot on July 31st.

It was the first of a bizarre chain of events for Kela from there, some of which seem to be out of his control.

Kela proceeded to appear in 16 games in August and early September before being shut down for the rest of the season due to injury concerns. At that point Kela had reached 52 innings pitched on the year, eight behind his career high of 60.1 in his rookie year.

Pirates’ general manager Neal Huntington cited his “high-leverage workload this year compared to the previous two seasons” as being the primary reason for the decision.  

So, it was clear that Kela was not, in fact, actually injured at the time.

While we’ve seen starting pitchers in the past, Washington’s Steven Strasburg maybe most notably, shut down due to innings limits, rarely do you see a reliever shut down for those very same reasons.

By that time the Pirates had fallen a game under .500 and 7.5 games back of the Wild Card so in large part, they were meaningless games anyway.

Regardless, the shutdown was odd to see. But if it was made to keep him healthy, you could understand the reasoning.

We move ahead to the start of the 2019 season when in March it was reported that Kela decided he was not going to speak with the media without a given reason.  

There didn’t seem to be any kind of contention or bad blood between Kela and the media that had been looming from the previous season so the decision seemed a little quizzical.

But it didn’t take long for Kela to break that silence as he was quoted in a story as early as April 17th about his early season struggles. Those struggles are the next item on the “bizarre things to happen with Keone Kela” list as a Pirate.

In his first 14 appearances of 2019, Kela gave up 6 earned runs in just 11.2 innings pitched while uncharacteristically giving up three homeruns and blowing three saves.

He had only given up five homers in his 52 innings in 2018.

After that, the concerns about his health really came to the forefront as he was taken out of the game on May 4th with right shoulder discomfort.

Four days later, Kela landed on the 10-day IL with right shoulder inflammation.

It’s been a rough road for Kela in getting back to the mound, as he suffered recurrent inflammation and even saw his fastball velocity dip in his rehab assignments at AAA Indianapolis.

The worst part for Pirates fans is that the bullpen hasn’t been good without him. Pittsburgh currently ranks 23rd out of 30 MLB teams with a 4.91 ERA.  

The effects of his absence have been felt off the field as well. In recent weeks, debate has raged around the city as to whether the barely contending Pirates should trade All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez.

One of the arguments for keeping Vazquez is that there are no clear candidates to replace him as the closer.

Imagine if Kela, a former closer, had been healthy and effective all year? The decision to take a top prospect package for Vazquez, if the Pirates chose to do so, would have been a lot easier to make, right?   

To top off the list of bizzaro things surrounding him, just as he was about to make his long-awaited return from the IL, the Pirates announced a two-game suspension of Kela for violating his Uniform Player’s Contract.

The true meaning for why he was suspended is being held from public knowledge by the team at this time.

It may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But this isn’t the first time Kela has been disciplined by his team.

A 2017 article in the Star-Telegram details how Kela was left off the Major League roster coming out of Spring Training after he was perceived to have given an “unacceptable” and “unprofessional” effort during a back-field B game and was approached about it by his teammates.  

The Rangers claimed to have kept him off the roster to preserve “clubhouse chemistry” and Kela had already developed a reputation for causing disruptions.  

All of this being said, one would hope Kela’s legacy with the Pirates is far from being determined yet. His earliest free agent year is 2021 and we really haven’t seen him at length.

I'm not really sure what to make of it all. Is it just a case of a string of unfortunate events or is Kela not a fit here? 

He’s certainly kept things interesting but overall, what do we really know about Keone Kela?    

Let’s hope the bizarre happenings list ends here for him in Pittsburgh.

Let's hope we find out he's the consistently successful late-inning reliever the Pirates expected him to be.    

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