Saturday afternoon, Hong-Chih Kuo pitched in relief for the Mariners and allowed multiple runs for the fifth time in six Cactus League appearances. Monday afternoon, a fairly unsurprising press release arrived by email. I'll blockquote the beginning:
MARINERS RELEASE LHP HONG-CHIH KUO
Spring Training roster reduced to 39 players.
We don't care about the second note. The story, obviously, is Kuo's release. His performance in Arizona was downright terrible. Over six Cactus League outings, he retired 20 batters while putting 20 batters on base. He surrendered five dingers and 14 runs, which is among the highest runs-allowed totals in baseball. That's really bad, given that Kuo is a short reliever.
Of course, roster decisions usually shouldn't be made based on numbers in spring training. Roy Halladay has a 10.57 ERA, after all, having allowed five dingers of his own. The Phillies aren't worried. The Mariners had a few things in mind:
(1) Kuo's performance was terrible
(2) Kuo's stuff was down
(3) Kuo is coming off a season in which his performance was terrible and his stuff was down
Between 2008-2010, Hong-Chih Kuo threw 170 innings of relief for the Dodgers, allowing 39 runs and generating 201 strikeouts. He was, when healthy and on the mound, one of the very best relievers in baseball. In 2011, he came apart. He battled anxiety, as he had before. His numbers were lousy. His fastball lost some ticks. He underwent another surgery on his elbow. The 2011 season saw Kuo's stock plummet to the ground, with the Mariners signing him as a cheap free agent in February 2012. Kuo was a guy who needed to show that he could bounce back.
He didn't show that in his limited time in Peoria. As it happens, Monday morning there was this article out of the Tacoma News-Tribune:
"It’s all about command, and I’ve been getting better, getting closer," Kuo said. "Baseball is baseball, and when you struggle you keep working to get it right."
"If the team goes to Japan without me, I'll have an opportunity here in Arizona to keep working," the Taiwanese reliever said.
Bob Condotta delivered a quote from the Mariners' pitching coach:
I'd talked to pitching coach Carl Willis as well and he said of Kuo that: "He shows signs but he's been erratic with his fastball, his breaking ball has been in and out at times. He just hasn't been able to put it all together just yet.''
Though he's just 30 years old, it's hard to see where Hong-Chih Kuo goes from here. He's had trouble with psychological issues, he's had trouble with physical issues, and his fastball that used to sit in the mid-90s has been hovering more in the 90-92 range. Kuo doesn't have a whole lot going for him at the moment. He has his history of success, but that success has never felt more distant.
Actually, it's very easy to see where Hong-Chih Kuo goes from here. He goes to the minor leagues, because the history makes him interesting, and the current reality makes him a major-league roster long shot. It's a matter of with which affiliate he'll land. If Kuo clears waivers, he could stay with the Mariners' organization. Or he won't clear waivers and he'll end up somewhere else, trying to get things right.
You want to root for a guy like Kuo, because he's demonstrated the ability to be outstanding, and he's had to deal with more than his fair share of adversity. But given what he's turned into, it's hard to imagine that he could rebound. The fastball is gone - maybe forever. The command is gone - maybe forever. His body and joints aren't getting stronger with age. We can't say what's going on in his head.
In 2010, Hong-Chih Kuo was one of baseball's very best. He pitched in the All-Star Game, between Josh Johnson and Heath Bell. In 2012, Hong-Chih Kuo is a question mark, and he might never see the major leagues again in his career. Even in a month of profluent optimism, the most we can say about Kuo is that you never know what could happen down the road.