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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Keone Kela

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Is Keone Kela worth the rest of the Yankees’ spare change?

Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

After the conclusion of his six years of service time, Keone Kela is at last a free agent. Unfortunately for him, however, his stock might be at its lowest point since his call-up as a member of the Texas Rangers in 2015. Now 27, Kela is seeking his first unrestricted payday after a series of arm issues.

As a community college outfielder, Kela earned a late-round selection in 2011, and a mid-round pick in the 2012 draft as a pitcher based solely off of his elite arm strength. Scouts convinced a reluctant Kela to give it a shot on the bump, and by the time he reached the majors, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Kela was humming in fastballs that could occasionally graze triple-digits. He finished his rookie season with a stellar 2.39 ERA, earned a regular role relieving for the playoff-bound Rangers, and seemed poised to continue on as one of the more dominant power arms in the majors if given a lengthier runway to succeed.

However, that very next year carried with it the first major setback of Kela’s career. In April, he underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow, costing him three months. Kela was never quite able to regain his footing. He ended up finishing the 2016 season with just 34 total innings pitched, and an ERA more than double that of his rookie year.

Before the start of the 2017 campaign, the Rangers demoted Kela for undisclosed chemistry issues, and his ascendant career appeared to be on the outs as quickly as it began. In addition to the incident that got Kela sent down, he’d had verbal confrontations with teammates and reporters who he had perceived to be critical of his performance. That led to what the Rangers felt was an unsustainable clubhouse environment. Although he eventually made it back to the bigs before the end of the year, and pitched quite well, he was again unable to clear 40 innings due to persistent shoulder stiffness.

After the season, he received stem cell treatment, which allegedly shored up the discomfort in his ailing wing. In 2018, Kela was able to eclipse 50 innings for the first time since his rookie year, but was traded to the Pirates at the deadline. For Pittsburgh in 2019, Kela was ejected and suspended for his involvement in two separate bench-clearing altercations, and pitched fewer than 30 innings with three separate stints of elbow inflammation that landed him on the IL. In 2020, Kela got through just two innings before more elbow tightness cost him the rest of his season.

At this point, there’s almost no doubt that Kela is damaged goods. He’s an awesome thrower who can’t stay healthy, and has apparently made questionable choices that have drawn the ire of those who’ve worked most closely with him. Through all this, however, he’s always pitched well (save for 2016). In four of the five seasons in which Kela has thrown 29 innings, he’s had an ERA below 3.30, and in three of those years, he finished below 3.00. Despite his inconsistent health, he’s been one of the game’s better run preventers when he has been able to throw, albeit in small doses.

Even after all the injuries, Kela still throws exactly as hard as ever, averaging between 96.2 and 96.8 mph on his four-seam fastball in every season of his career. If only he could stay healthy — so says every team he’s ever played for — he could be one of the game’s more consistent relivers. Still, he’s pitched around a half-season’s worth of relief work in every year, and likely would have approached that mark had last year’s especially truncated schedule not worked against Kela’s intermittent availability. At this point, it would be unwise for any team to expect more than that from Kela, as he’s clearly not built to sustain the tension he puts on his arm. While you can’t construct your roster in a way that’s dependent upon his availability, he’s someone you can trust to not get shelled, and clear a few innings at a high level, lightening the load for the rest of your pen.

In the Yankees’ case, Kela is best suited to set up Britton in a save situation on a day immediately after Chapman’s thrown and is unavailable, or to keep the club in a close contest when the bulk of the pen’s been exhausted. Ultimately, Kela is only feasible as a limited luxury, or else you’d be asking too much. If the Yankees can take on another million, Kela’s probably not the worst option available, especially with some significant upside, so long as he’s healthy in September. However, he’s accumulated too much physical and behavioral baggage to merit a significant investment at this point in his career.