The Pirates are remaining tight-lipped on the contractual violation that resulted in a team-issued two-game suspension for right-hander Keone Kela, but Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports (subscription required) that Pittsburgh is “more than willing” to trade Kela. (Kela, according to Yahoo’s Tim Brown, got into an “altercation” with director of cultural initiatives Hector Morales.)
It’s been less than a year since the Pirates traded prospects Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel to the Rangers to acquire Kela in hopes of shoring up the bullpen not only for a possible 2018 run but also for the foreseeable future. The Pirates made that deal knowing that Kela had previously been demoted to the minors as a disciplinary measure back in Spring Training 2017, but the allure of a high-quality setup man with two and a half years of club control remaining was easy to see.
Kela, still just 26 years old, only elevated his stock down the stretch in 2018. He tossed 15 1/3 innings out of the Pittsburgh bullpen following the trade, holding opponents to five runs (2.93 ERA) on 10 hits and five walks with 22 strikeouts. The 2019 season has been another story. A shoulder issue has limited Kela to only 11 2/3 innings so far this season, during which he’s served up six runs on 11 hits (three homers) and four walks.
At this point, Kela hasn’t pitched in a big league game since May 4 due to said shoulder troubles. Coupled with a team-issued suspension, it’s safe to say that his value isn’t exactly at its apex. Even if that’s the case, though, Kela still has plenty of appealing qualities. He won’t turn 27 until early next season and is the owner of a solid 3.48 ERA with averages of 11.0 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 and 1.01 HR/9 in 196 2/3 innings of big league work in his career. He’s earning an eminently affordable $3.175MM in 2019 ($1.16MM still to be paid out) and is controlled through the 2020 season. It’s impossible to say how much the brief suspension will impact his trade value without knowing what transpired, but the appeal based on his contractual status and track record on the mound is clear.
From a bigger-picture standpoint, the openness to moving Kela doesn’t portend a full-scale teardown in Pittsburgh. General manager Neal Huntington has suggested on multiple occasions that he has no intention of trading closer Felipe Vazquez — one of baseball’s best relievers — and it stands to reason that he has a similar view of long-term assets. However, the Pirates are just 2-8 over their past 10 games and have fallen to 7.5 games back in the NL Central and seven back in the Wild Card hunt. Given their recent trajectory, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if shorter-term pieces like Kela, Jordan Lyles, Corey Dickerson and Melky Cabrera hit the block and found their way to other clubs.