I woke up this morning to discover that Keone Kela had been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that had been linked to Kela quite a bit in recent days. The return was initially announced as two players to be named later, though that was apparently because no one had told Taylor Hearn, one of those two players, yet. Hearn’s name was announced soon thereafter. Jon Daniels says the second player will be picked from a list in the next few weeks, and Jerry Crasnick says that it is a “lower-tier prospect . . . [n]ot of the same level as Taylor Hearn.”
So we can reasonably assume the major piece in the deal is Hearn. And Hearn is an interesting piece, a big lefthander who turns 24 in August and who is having a solid campaign for AA Altoona, putting up a 3.12 ERA/3.19 FIP with 107 Ks against 38 walks in 104 IP. A fifth round pick of the Nationals in 2015, Hearn was acquired by the Pirates in 2016 in the Mark Melancon deal, and is having a breakout year for the Pirates. He’s #7 in the MLB Pipeline Pirates top 30 prospect list for the mid-season, and while he didn’t make the Baseball America Pirates top 10, he was mentioned as a riser and apparently was in the “just missed” category. MLB Pipeline has him at #7 in their Rangers rankings, behind Cole Winn, Hans Crouse and Jonathan Hernandez, and ahead of Joe Palumbo and Cole Ragans.
A Texas native, Hearn’s calling card is an upper-90s fastball that MLB Pipeline grades as a 70, but his secondaries — particularly his breaking ball — are lagging behind the fastball, and his command isn’t great, which makes him a greater risk of ending up in the bullpen. There’s a non-zero chance Hearn ends up a lefty Kela — a really good hard-throwing late inning reliever. I suspect that the Rangers will keep him in the rotation for now, probably slotting him at Frisco for the rest of the season, and as someone who will need to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason, he’s potentially in the mix for the 2019 rotation, and would represent depth at AAA next year for when the Rangers need rotation reinforcements.
Without knowing who the player to be named later is we can’t really judge the overall return, though my initial reaction is that it is underwhelming. That said, I’ve likened the Kela situation to the Sam Dyson trade in 2015, when the Rangers gave up two fringe prospects (Cody Ege and Tomas Telis) for a guy with a track record of success, injury concerns, and a reputation for being a difficult personality. Kela has had more success than Dyson did, but also less team control (he’s a free agent after 2020), missed much of 2016 due to elbow surgery, has spent time on the disabled list with shoulder issues, and has a reputation for being a difficult personality. There’s a lot of relievers on the market, and while Kela is one of the better ones, he’s not Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, the type of guys who command premiums.
This will inevitably prompt the “why not hold onto him and see if you can get something better later?” questions, to which I would point to all the complaining about why the Rangers didn’t “sell high” on Shawn Tolleson and Sam Dyson, two guys who blew up on them. I believe the Rangers have had Kela available for a while now, know relievers tend to be mercurial by nature, know Kela is an injury risk, and felt now was the time to move him. Kela could be great and a year from now return a better package than what the Rangers got for him, or he could blow up his arm or have another issue of the type that got him sent to AAA to start the 2017 season. Relievers are inherently unpredictable, and at some point you have to decide to pull the trigger. And if anything, this is a change for a front office that has gotten a reputation for waiting too long, rather than not long enough, to move players.
In addition, its not unreasonable to assume that the Rangers like Hearn better than the rankings might. Jon Daniels has talked before about adding a couple of pitchers, Emmanuel Clase and Jason Bahr, this season where they felt they were ahead of the curve and were getting them before their value moved up in the industry, and Hearn could be a similar piece. He’s an upper-level hard-throwing lefthander who could contribute in the majors next year, and is the type of piece that fits well into the Rangers’ organization mix.
I’m not going to tell you I’m thrilled with this trade, and I’m bummed I won’t be watching Kela pitch for the Rangers going forward, but I am looking forward to seeing what Hearn does as a Ranger.