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Notes: Kela named closer; injury updates

@adamdberry
February 12, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Pirates manager Derek Shelton met the media before PiratesFest late last month, he declined to name a closer. But there was never a closer competition. Shelton just wanted to inform his closer himself, not have him find out through the media. But on Wednesday, Shelton announced

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Pirates manager Derek Shelton met the media before PiratesFest late last month, he declined to name a closer. But there was never a closer competition. Shelton just wanted to inform his closer himself, not have him find out through the media.

But on Wednesday, Shelton announced the decision he made weeks before: Keone Kela will enter the season as Pittsburgh’s closer.

“That was my expectation all along, but wanted to sit down and talk to him about it,” Shelton said. “I think he’s put himself in a position where he deserves to do that with his stuff. Would expect that, heading into the season, that will be his role.”

Shelton indicated that Kela will be a traditional type of closer, pitching at the end of games and in save situations. He worked in that role for the Rangers as he recorded 24 saves in 2018 prior to the trade that sent him to Pittsburgh from Texas. But the 26-year-old right-hander, who began his Pirates career as a setup man for the now-imprisoned Felipe Vázquez, said he’s open to more non-traditional bullpen usage if the opportunities call for it.

“If it’s the ninth inning, great. If it’s 3-4-5 in the eighth and that’s what I’ve got to do to close that inning, I’m not the type of dude -- my ego’s not stroked with the 'S' next to it,” Kela said. “As long as we get some wins and change the narrative of Pirates baseball and the culture here, that’s really what I care about. If I can help that and I can leave a resonating energy here that we’ll continue to help develop, then I win and I did my part.”

Kela has talked about “changing the narrative” since he reported to Pirate City earlier this week, and he seems intent on doing that on a personal and team-wide level. Kela was dominant when he took the mound last year, posting a 2.12 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 32 appearances, but his season was defined by a shoulder injury and two fights -- one in the clubhouse with a front-office employee and one on the field in Cincinnati.

For most clubs, the closer is considered the leader of the bullpen, whether it’s by example or in a more vocal way. Kela said he takes those responsibilities seriously, but he knows he still has more to learn from other veterans in the clubhouse. He specifically mentioned leaning on non-roster invitee Derek Holland, a former Rangers teammate who pitched in the World Series during his first two full seasons.

While he’ll begin the season at the back end of the bullpen, Kela seems to be a likely trade candidate. He’s one season away from free agency, and he has the kind of late-inning arm that postseason contenders covet. He just needs to prove that he can stay healthy, because his performance the last three years -- including a 2.84 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 150 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings -- speaks for itself.

So, too, does the impact of Shelton’s belief in Kela.

“It feels really good,” Kela said. “It gives me that amount of confidence to come into the season and continue to prepare, and when that ninth inning comes and my name gets called, to go out there and do my job.”

First workout ‘really special’ for Shelton
There wasn’t much fanfare to it -- no long speeches or special celebrations -- but the Pirates’ pitchers and catchers took part in their first workout under Shelton’s watch on Wednesday.

They only spent about an hour and a half on the field. Pitchers played catch, performed fielding drills and hit in the cages, and one group threw bullpen sessions. Catchers ran drills with coaches and caught bullpens. The early arriving position players split up for defensive drills and reconvened for batting practice on the back fields of Pirate City.

For Shelton, it was a workout decades in the making.

“It was cool. I think it’s a little bit emotional,” said Shelton, wearing his No. 17 jersey. “You spend a lot of time throughout your career and you wait for a day like this and an organization like this, yeah, it was a really special day. … The first time out on the field, it makes it feel real.”

One guest made the whole day a little more special. Standing between the back fields was Ron Shelton, the manager’s father and a longtime high school baseball coach in Illinois. Shelton said you can expect to see Ron around quite a bit.

“I think my dad’s probably more excited than I am,” Shelton quipped.

Trainer’s room
The Pirates were beset by injuries throughout last season, but director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk had essentially nothing but good news to share before the first workout.

The four players who underwent offseason surgery reported to camp healthy and without restrictions: reliever Geoff Hartlieb (right foot), utility man Erik González (left foot), outfielder Jason Martin (left shoulder) and non-roster catcher Christian Kelley (left hand).

Pitchers Nick Burdi (neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome), Chad Kuhl and Edgar Santana (Tommy John surgery) are also healthy and cleared for full participation. So is prospect JT Brubaker, who started only six games last season due to a strained right forearm. Reliever Kyle Crick (September finger surgery) is also throwing without restrictions.

Right fielder Gregory Polanco (left shoulder) is expected to report to camp healthy, though Tomczyk said the Pirates will monitor his workload after another injury-interrupted season. Right-hander Jameson Taillon, who’s out for the year following Tommy John surgery, is playing catch from 75 feet.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.