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Who should close if Kela isn’t ready?

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Pittsburgh Pirates Photo Day Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

By now, everyone is aware that the Pirates’ anointed closer, Keone Kela, missed the first full week of workouts. And, at least based on what new manager Derek Shelton has been saying, no one is too worked up about it.

I can understand that; although the reason for Kela’s absence hasn’t been made known, one might assume that it’s more illness-related than injury-related. That makes sense; players must give permission for clubs to announce if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, and it’s understandable if a player would rather keep that information under wraps.

The club must feel that even if Kela must miss a few more days, he still has enough time to get ready to close games by the time the Pirates open the season on July 24 in St. Louis. But with each day that passes, is that realistic? What if Kela is not ready to grab the closer’s reins at the start of the season? And what if he pitches up to his capability in the first month of the season and the Pirates choose to deal him at the trade deadline? That’s a bit of a tricky scenario because in order for Kela to pitch well, that would mean the Pirates are actually winning a fair amount of the time, given that he’s most likely to only appear at the end of a game in which the Bucs are ahead.

But just for the sake of argument, what if Kela pitches well and doesn’t do anything stupid, like get in a shouting match with a manager or a fight with a teammate or bullpen catcher? And what if he is dealt? Who would most likely inherit the closer’s role?

This is a topic that colleagues Nathan Hursh and Brett Barnett both touched upon tangentially over the past few days. But let’s focus strictly on those with closer potential.

Several candidates stand out, but all have their flaws. Kyle Crick seems to have the stuff, which he showed plenty of in 2018 after coming over from the Giants, where he was once a highly regarded starting pitching prospect. That season, it looked like Crick was a bona fide steal. But he came down to earth with a major thud in 2019, not only on the field but off, where he had a scrap with closer-turned-inmate Felipe Vasquez that left Crick with a fractured right index finger. On the field, the numbers were ugly, as he walked 35 batters in 49 innings and put together a 3-7 mark with a 4.96 ERA in 52 appearances. He yielded 10 home runs and wound up with a FIP of 5.95 and a WHIP of 1.551 but claims those numbers were inflated by the fact that he was tipping his pitches – a problem he says he’s solved.

Some have mentioned Nick Burdi as having closer-type stuff, but the 27-year-old right-hander – a second-round draft pick of the Twins in 2014 out of Louisville – has had trouble staying healthy. He underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL early in the 2017 season, and then had thoracic outlet surgery in late June of last season, sidelining him for the remainder of the year. Still, he has the big arm that clubs like to have sitting in the bullpen, and if he can remain healthy, he certainly has potential as a closer or set-up man.

My dark horse for the closer role isn’t even being mentioned by many for that role at this point. Rather, it seems everyone has Chad Kuhl penciled in as a depth starter or perhaps someone to share the fifth spot in the rotation with Steven Brault. Barnett put the spotlight on Kuhl Sunday and discussed his merits as a starter, such as they are. He also mentioned that at least one local beat reporter has touted Kuhl’s potential as a late reliever. I like the fact that the Pirates want to see what Kuhl – who missed all last season while recovering from his own Tommy John surgery – can do as a starter. And I’m certainly pulling for him to do well. But there’s something about his makeup and his repertoire that has closer or set-up man written all over him at some point in his career.

So, while it makes sense to see what Kuhl can do in the rotation, even if it means piggybacking with Brault, I’d like to see the club work him into some high-leverage relief appearances if he fails to impress as a starter. That’s ultimately where I see him having the most value as he matures as a pitcher, as long as he can keep his walk numbers down. A back end of the bullpen that features Burdi, Crick and Kuhl – assuming all three are healthy physically and otherwise – wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

NOTES – Right-hander JT Brubaker, who figured to see action with the Bucs last year before his season was derailed by arm problems, tossed three scoreless innings in Sunday’s intrasquad game. If Brubaker shows he’s capable of getting big league hitters out on a reasonably consistent basis, that might earn him a spot on the opening-day roster as a long man or occasional starter while other starters build up their endurance.