Pirates give bullpen big boost, trade for Rangers closer Keone Kela
When the Pirates traded for Keone Kela, they acquired a pitcher who brings all the elements a closer needs to succeed.
Including the mindset of a competitor who doesn’t back down.
The Pirates added Kela, a 25-year-old right-hander, to their bullpen early Tuesday morning when they sent Double-A left-handed starter Taylor Hearn and a player to be named to the Texas Rangers.
Three years ago, Kela, a rookie at the time, was pitching the 13th inning of Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
When the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson hit a long foul fly ball to left field, Kela shouted at him for, apparently, admiring his work.
Words were exchanged among Kela, Donaldson and on-deck batter Jose Bautista, and the benches and bullpens cleared. Donaldson eventually struck out, and the Rangers won in the 14th. The next day, Kela was asked about his mindset when he’s challenged in a competitive situation.
“When I’m challenged?” he said, rhetorically. “I believe I’m the aggressor. I’m the challenger. When I step on the mound, my job is to pitch with conviction, execute to the best of my ability and get the batter out. Nothing’s going to change.
“What happened yesterday is not going to change my mindset. It’s not going to change who I am as a man or a pitcher. I’m going to go out there with the same intensity level.”
Many players in the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday had either seen the video of the incident or were eager to hear of its details. Kela’s fighting spirit played with his new teammates.
“That’s kind of cool,” reliever Kyle Crick said. “I think you have to have that, a little edge. I think everyone needs one.”
Added manager Clint Hurdle: “We like the man. We like the pitcher. The skill set speaks for itself. He’s got an edge to him that’s very competitive. Physically tough, mentally tough.”
Without mentioning that incident, Kela told Fox Sports Southwest on Monday night when he was informed of the trade that he has grown since he was drafted in the 12th round in 2012.
“I’m still a young man, but I definitely came from being a little boy when I first signed at 19 years old in 2012,” he said. “This team and this organization has helped me become a better person, a better man, collectively, and a baseball player as well.”
Kela was informed of the trade Monday night during the seventh inning of the Rangers’ 9-5 victory at Arizona.
“I’m still a little shocked,” he said. “I’m excited. It’s a new beginning, a new journey I get to venture into. I get to go play for a great organization, a great group of guys and go play for something.”
Rangers manager Jeff Banister, a Pirates coach from 2011-14, said last year that Kela can become a good closer.
“I can definitely see Kela there,” Banister said. “He has all the elements — mentality, pitches, attitude — to do that.”
It happened this season when Kela was given the Rangers’ closer role for the first time and converted 24 of 25 save opportunities. He has a 3.44 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 38 games, striking out 44 in 36 2/3 innings. He allowed only four earned runs in June and July, one each in his two most recent outings. That includes his only blown save of the season July 24 in a 13-10 loss to the Oakland A’s.
Kela has been on the disabled list twice: for elbow surgery in 2016 and shoulder discomfort last year.
He made his 180th career relief appearance Sunday on four days’ rest, earning a save in the Rangers’ 4-3 victory against the Houston Astros. He allowed one hit, one run, two walks and struck out one in one inning.
“Kela is an experienced, quality, high-leverage reliever who projects to be a significant addition to our late-game options for the next few seasons,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in a statement.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, whose team is 46-62 and 21 games behind American League West leader Houston, called Kela a “dominant closer.”
“It was a challenging trade, home-grown player like Keone who has really blossomed the last couple years,” Daniels said. “Ultimately, we felt like where we are, it made sense to consider these kind of deals. We can get multiple players that we think can be part of our future that we’re excited about. Excited to pull the trigger.”
Kela also comes with a team-friendly contract. He is making $1.2 million this year and is arbitration-eligible for the next two seasons, according to spotrac.com.
Two years after the fact, the Pirates trade of Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals for Vazquez and Hearn paid off in the acquisition of Kela.
Hearn, 23, is rated the Pirates’ No. 7 minor-league prospect by MLB.com. He has made 19 starts for Double-A Altoona this season and compiled a 3-6 record and 3.12 ERA, with 107 strikeouts in 104 innings. He also was named to the Eastern League All-Star Game.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.