Keone Kela already knows what he wants to do.
Reaching the Double A level at 21 and in his third professional season is great, of course, but that’s nothing to celebrate. Like every minor leaguer, he wants to pitch in the big leagues and also knows in what capacity.
“I would like to close out games in Arlington,” said Kela, a hard-throwing right-hander promoted to Double A Frisco from High A Myrtle Beach on May 3.
“That’s always been my dream and it’s what I would like to do. But whatever the organization sees fit where I can help out the team the best is what I’m going to do.”
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Becoming a backend bullpen piece is certainly something the Rangers would like to see from Kela, and he’s shown the tools necessary to do the job.
Kela has been clocked throwing as hard as 102 mph — pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League this off-season — and mixes in a breaking ball and changeup. But his fastball is what has gotten him to where he is so far as a 12th-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
“There was never a question about his physical ability,” said Gary McGraw, the Rangers’ veteran Pacific Northwest area scout who recommended and later signed Kela out of Everett [Wash.] Community College.
“He’s built like a football linebacker and he had everything you look for. He had good arm speed and the ability to spin the baseball. But, when we signed him, we were just hoping he could get to 95 mph.”
But McGraw isn’t surprised to see Kela increase his velocity more than that and dabble in the 100 mph range.
Scouting has as much to do with finding raw talent as it does to ensuring a young player has the mindset and drive to improve. And McGraw never doubted that Kela had it in him.
“He’s a fighter on the mound,” McGraw said. “Every team knew the dog in the fight, but we got to know the fight in the dog. Keone is a very proud young man and has a lot of respect for his family name. He wasn’t going to let those people down.”
Kela, whose last name is Hawaiian, hasn’t had an easy road, though. Last season proved to be a pivotal one for him in growth on and off the field.
Kela began last season at Low A Hickory, but never really fit in with the team. He admits that he had the wrong attitude about his chosen profession, viewing it only as a competition and business.
Kela considers himself somewhat of a recluse, preferring to chill at home rather than go out at night, but knows he still has to enjoy being around his teammates given the amount of travel and time away from home the game demands.
“I wasn’t having fun like I needed to and it took a toll on my career,” Kela said. “I had to take a step back and really look at it in a different perspective and step up my game not only as a teammate, but also outside the field. The development of myself has been pretty big, learning who I am.
“Baseball has really exposed a lot about myself as far as my character and what I need to change, like being a man outside the game of baseball. I’ve taken a lot of steps in that sense, and it’s nothing but a big blessing to continue to develop.”
After Hickory, the Rangers sent Kela to Arizona to regroup and refocus. He then went to Short A Spokane to finish the season, which made sense because Kela is from that area and had previous relationships with the coaching staff up there.
Kela pitched OK, compiling a 3.78 ERA over 12 appearances with 26 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings. He kept pitching into the off-season in the Arizona Fall League and then had an impressive showing in the Venezuelan Winter League with Magallanes.
Kela had a 1.50 ERA with eight strikeouts and no walks over six innings in winter ball and said it was his best experience in the game yet. He played with and against big leaguers in an intense atmosphere.
“Those fans will jump on you if you do bad, but luckily I pitched pretty well,” Kela said, smiling. “They’re passionate about the sport and really love it. I took the energy they were presenting and utilized it on the mound.”
He carried that into spring training and this season, posting a 2.61 ERA at Myrtle Beach in his first eight outings. That earned him a promotion to Frisco a month into the season and he has thrown four scoreless innings in his first two appearances with the RoughRiders.
“I’ve just taken so many jumps in my career the last year, it’s been great,” Kela said. “But now I just want to get to the bigs and play in the bigs, man. That’s where it’s at.”