Kuhnel healthy, eager to compete for bullpen spot

February 20th, 2022

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Reliever Joel Kuhnel grew up in Peoria, Ariz., less than 30 minutes from the Reds’ player development complex in Goodyear. But Arizona was about the last place the right-hander wanted to be last year.

While other players were going to Cincinnati or to Minor League affiliates, Kuhnel remained in Goodyear for most of 2021 because of right shoulder surgery to repair a torn capsule in October 2020. He reported to extended spring last year to continue his rehabilitation.

“That was the first year I got to watch Spring Training and everything from home like when I was a little kid and everything,” Kuhnel said. “It sucked watching everybody report and I’m sitting home with a shoulder rehabbing.”

Kuhnel, who turned 27 on Saturday, made his Major League debut for the Reds in the second half of the 2019 season. In 11 appearances, he posted a 4.66 ERA after a strong showing that year for Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville.

“At that point, I thought he was one of our top prospects -- and he obviously went to the big leagues soon after that,” said Louisville manager Pat Kelly, who helmed Chattanooga in ’19.

Things didn’t go as well in 2020. Kuhnel spent most of the shortened season pitching at Cincinnati’s alternate training site in Mason, Ohio. He was trying to push through shoulder discomfort.

“You’re never 100% healthy throughout a whole season,” Kuhnel said. “You try to push through stuff. But it just so happens I was trying to push through something I probably shouldn’t have been pushing through.”

Kuhnel got back to the big leagues for three appearances in August 2020. He pitched in back-to-back games and looked strong. On Aug. 29, 2020, he pitched a scoreless top of the seventh inning in the second game of a doubleheader and earned the win in a 6-5 Reds walk-off victory over the Cubs. The following day, during a 10-1 loss to Chicago, he worked one perfect inning and struck out two batters.

That turned out to be his last appearance for the Reds. Kuhnel was shut down from pitching. After the season, he was assigned outright off of the 40-man roster.

“It just ached and felt bad,” he said. “It just wasn’t feeling better and just kept going and going and going. I was like, ‘OK, something’s not right.’”

Orthopedic surgeon Keith Meister performed the shoulder surgery, and Kuhnel noticed the difference even before trying to pick up a baseball again.

“I thought it was funny,” Kuhnel explained. “About three weeks after surgery and post-op and everything, I was like, ‘Wow, this feels night and day.’ I felt so much better.”

Kuhnel was back facing hitters again in the Arizona Complex League by September. He returned for four games last season with Louisville and worked four scoreless innings with two hits, one walk and three strikeouts.

That provided a good taste heading into the offseason.

“I thought he looked very similar to when I had him in Chattanooga,” Kelly said. “I was really pleased to see it. It was good for him. It was a short period of time but a good test -- a confidence builder more than anything.

“The hardest thing coming off an injury is the mental aspect, being able to overcome that fear.”

In the offseason, life got even better as Kuhnel and his wife welcomed a baby girl. Currently part of the Reds’ early Minor League camp, Kuhnel will compete as a non-roster player whenever big league camp opens after the lockout.

Kuhnel has been throwing without limitations off a mound. On Saturday, he was among the pitchers throwing in the bullpen.

With improved mechanics, Kuhnel hopes to avoid shoulder issues. His fastball velocity is where it was before -- mid- to high-90s mph -- and now, he’s just trying to improve his slider.

“Everything feels normal,” Kuhnel said. “It feels better than ever, really.”