Pirates acquire reliever Kela from Rangers

25-year-old right-hander joins Pittsburgh core of young 'pen arms

July 31st, 2018

PITTSBURGH -- Reported to be in pursuit of controllable pitching as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approached, the Pirates followed through early Tuesday morning and picked up a big, young arm with the acquisition of Rangers closer .
Pittsburgh also backed up its stated willingness to deal high-level prospects, as the Bucs gave up Double-A left-hander Taylor Hearn, their No. 7 prospect as ranked by MLB Pipeline, along with a player to be named in exchange for the 25-year-old Kela. According to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan, the deal will be completed when the Rangers choose the other player from a list in August.
"I've never played there. Heard from a bunch of guys that it's a fun place to play," Kela said of Pittsburgh. "It's a baseball city. It's family-oriented. Very happy to go over there and get the same love I did here."
Huntington went into buy-mode over the past three weeks as the Pirates surged into postseason contention by winning 15 of 19 games. But they are 3 1/2 games out of the second National League Wild Card spot, so the Pirates sought upgrades that would complement their young core as the front office keeps an eye on the future. Kela, a right-hander, fits the description.
The Pirates can plug Kela into their bullpen in front of closer Felipe Vazquez and alongside current setup men , and . It may not have been the splashiest move made on Tuesday -- that may have been the Bucs' trade for Chris Archer -- but it was a clear vote of confidence after the Pirates played their way back into contention.
"We just felt really good about Keone Kela and the acquisition cost and the fit in our bullpen. It gives us another veteran back there to complement Felipe," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We have complete confidence in Kyle and Edgar and what they've done."
Kela has put together a strong season, converting 24 of 25 save opportunities while posting a 3.44 ERA, 2.97 FIP and 1.15 WHIP. In his first full year as Texas' closer, Kela has 44 strikeouts and 14 walks with three home runs allowed in 36 2/3 innings. He owns a 3.45 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 180 Major League appearances, all of them coming in relief.
The right-hander's strikeout rate has dipped this season to 29 percent, but he's cut back on his walk rate (9.2 percent) and increased his ground ball rate to 40.9 percent. He is a two-pitch reliever, relying on a fastball that's averaged 96.8 mph this season and a curveball against which opponents have hit only .148 with a .246 slugging percentage.
Kela's value also comes with his contract. He is making $1.2 million this season, and he remains under club control through the end of the 2020 season. So Kela will join Vazquez at the back of what's shaping up to be a formidable bullpen for years to come.
"We like the man. We like the pitcher. The skill set speaks for itself," said manager Clint Hurdle, who spoke with friends in the Rangers' organization about Kela. "He's got an edge to him that's very competitive. Physically tough, mentally tough, so it's a very good fit for our club. We think it'll be a good fit for him as well."
Kela was one of the more attractive bullpen options remaining after a flurry of moves was made for relievers in the days leading up to the Deadline. Reports connected him to the Pirates over the past week, and they finally came to fruition around 1:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
"It has been like a little bit of an earthquake here and there," Kela said. "Waking up and knowing I wanted to be a part of this situation, but knowing this game comes with this nature. My first time with this, not a bad issue to have other people want you and go play in contention. Definitely nerve-wracking. Grateful for the opportunity I have here."
The Pirates had to pay a price to get Kela, however. The 23-year-old Hearn was part of their next wave of pitching prospects, a hard-throwing left-hander acquired from the Nationals along with Vazquez in exchange for closer on July 30, 2016. Hearn -- a Royse City, Texas, native now getting a chance to pitch closer to home -- was 3-6 with a 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 107 strikeouts in 104 innings over 19 starts for Double-A Altoona.
Some scouts wondered if Hearn's control might eventually lead him to the bullpen, but he could find his way into a big league rotation over the next few years. One NL scout praised his "high, high ceiling" on Tuesday. Hearn offers a high-octane fastball that ticks up to 98 mph along with a slider and changeup.