M’s Expected To Sign Hong-Chih Kuo
According to Jayson Stark, other teams that have expressed interest in signing LH reliever Hong-Chih Kuo have been notified that he’s joining the Mariners instead. The M’s are usually pretty slow to announce stuff like this – Jack Z talked about Kevin Millwood as part of the rotation plans on the Montero-Pineda conference call, even though that signing wasn’t announced until the next day – but I’d expect this to become official at some point in the next few days. It will almost certainly be a minor league contract with an invite to spring training and a bunch of incentives tied to innings pitched if he makes the big league roster.
In terms of what he could provide, no one’s a bigger question mark in the sport. In 2010, he was probably the best reliever in baseball – last year, he was one of the worst. He has a long history of arm problems, including having Tommy John surgery twice, and again lost his ability to throw strikes during the first half of last season – he had initially missed three months in the 2009 season with the same inability to throw the ball over the plate. On May 11th of last year, he was placed on the DL with “anxiety disorder”, and during one rehab stint in Arizona, he “once misfired a pitch during a bullpen session and hit a trainer in the neck. The trainer was walking across an adjacent practice field.”
He showed signs of overcoming the issues during the second half of last season, however, and during the final two months of the season, he only walked seven batters in 14 innings – a big improvement over the 16 walks in 13 innings in the first four months of the year. That would be encouraging, except there’s also the small matter of his velocity disappearing down the stretch. In 2010, Kuo regularly sat at 95 and reached the upper-90s with his fastball, but he ended the year topping out at 93. If he figured out how to throw strikes by simply throwing the ball softer, that might not be as positive as if he regained his prior form.
So, you name the red flag and it’s probably raised with Kuo. He’s forgotten how to throw strikes twice. He’s had five surgeries, including major arm problems twice. His velocity was down at the end of the year. Of course, there’s also the upside – he’s come back from the yips before, he finished the year without any reported arm problems, and there’s that 2010 season that is pretty tantalizing sitting on his resume.
If Kuo comes to camp throwing 95 and putting the ball over the plate, he’ll make this team, and could potentially be the best reliever in the bullpen. If he’s throwing 92 or hitting trainers on other fields, then the M’s will likely have just agreed to pick up the tab for further rehab of a pitcher who isn’t quite right. It could easily go either way, or be a mixture of both. Kuo might be worthless, or he might be amazing. Good luck trying to figure out which result the team should expect.
But, this is why NRIs were invented. The M’s basically just bought a lottery ticket, and if it pays off, they’ll come out with a greatly improved bullpen. If it doesn’t, well, it didn’t really cost them much to begin with.
Update: Dylan Hernandez reports that the deal is done, but is actually a one year Major League contract. So, Kuo will go right on the 40 man roster, and unless he implodes in spring training, he’s going to make the club.