Jason Kubel an odd fit, but he can help Arizona

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Adding a non-star to play left field shouldn’t have been a priority for the Diamondbacks, but I’m not buying all of the talk that Jason Kubel is a downgrade for Arizona.

That’s not to say it’s not possible. Gerardo Parra hit .292/.357/.427 in 445 at-bats and won a Gold Glove as the Diamondbacks’ primary left fielder last season. He was also 15-for-16 stealing bases. Plus, Parra is just 24 years old, suggesting that he’s only going to get better.

Kubel, on the other hand, is a 29-year-old coming off a .273/.332/.434 season. He’s undeniably a defensive downgrade, with fielding numbers that place him among the game’s worst left fielders.

It’s also not going to be easy to mix-and-match, since both players are left-handed hitters.

However, Kubel’s arrival gives an already solid top-to-bottom lineup even more depth. The Diamondbacks are now looking at Ryan Roberts, who came in at .249/.341/.427 last season, as a No. 8 hitter. Paul Goldschmidt is a threat to hit 30 homers, and he’ll probably bat seventh initially.

As for Kubel, he should be much more comfortable hitting at Chase Field than he was at Target. Kubel came in at .300/.369/.539 with 28 homers in 2009, the last year of the Metrodome. In the two seasons since, he’s hit 12 homers at home and 21 on the road. Target Field appears to be about as harsh on left-handed power hitters as any park in the game, so it’s hardly unrealistic to expect Kubel to bounce back to .280-25 HR at Chase next year.

Even so, maybe the Diamondbacks will be worse with Kubel in left field and Parra on the bench. However, they’re certainly much better equipped for an outfield injury now. With Collin Cowgill gone to Oakland, the Diamondbacks were looking at Willie Bloomquist or a minor league veteran such as David Winfree or Cole Gillespie as a fourth outfielder. Now they’re in terrific position if an outfielder goes down, particularly since Parra can slide over to center field at a moment’s notice. Kubel should also get a crash course at first base, just in case Goldschmidt disappoints.

I was pretty surprised by the Diamondbacks’ move, and it’s easy to say that the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Certainly, Hiroki Kuroda projected to add more wins on to Arizona’s total next season than Kubel does. However, the Diamondbacks ran into the same problem as the Rockies this winter: their easiest offensive spots to upgrade were second base and third base, two extremely limited markets. Interestingly enough, they ended up going the same route as the Rockies with their big signing, plucking a former Twins outfielder. The big difference here is that Arizona gave Kubel a two-year, $15 million contract, while the Rockies went to $31.5 million for three years with Michael Cuddyer.

Also, the Diamondbacks, having gone to the playoffs last year and having already upgraded their rotation with Trevor Cahill, were in much better position to make a “luxury signing” than the Rockies were. Kubel’s addition probably won’t add more than 1-2 wins to Arizona’s total next season, but those 1-2 wins could be very key. The Rockies’ signing of Cuddyer also wasn’t more than a 1-2 win upgrade, and those wins seem less likely to make the difference between going to the postseason and staying home.

Keone Kela’s return gives beleaguered Pirates a boost

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PITTSBURGH — A surprising positive COVID-19 test when he arrived at summer camp forced Pittsburgh Pirates closer Keone Kela to find creative ways to say in shape. Really creative.

With PNC Park off limits while he followed Major League Baseball’s health protocols, Kela started riding around the city with a stash of balls, a net and time to kill. He long tossed into a net in the parking lot at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He played “Wall Ball” off the pillars of the Fort Duquesne Bridge. He rolled through the South Side bar district in search of open space to let it rip.

“I’ve seen Pittsburgh now during this quarantine,” Kela said with a laugh on Wednesday.

The view will change considerably on Thursday for Kela when he joins the injury-ravaged Pirates for a four-game series in Cincinnati. Six Pittsburgh pitchers currently find themselves on the injured list, including relievers Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes and Nick Burdi. The strain on those left has been obvious.

The last-place Pirates are 27th in the majors in ERA (5.32) and the turnover in the bullpen has been particularly jarring. Nearly two dozen pitchers have taken the hill for Pittsburgh through 16 games, including catcher John Ryan Murphy, who actually tossed a scoreless ninth in a loss to Detroit last Saturday.

The fiery Kela’s arrival provides some semblance of a return to normalcy. Or at least whatever passes for normalcy in 2020.

“Getting him back in our clubhouse and his leadership and the person he is, I’m excited about that,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Secondly, the guy that we talked about being our closer the second day of spring training is now back in the fold, so it kind of lets guys go into regular roles moving forward, as much as availability allows.”

Kela isn’t worried about being bit by the injury bug that’s made throwing a baseball this season a dicey proposition. He is confident in the path set out by pitching coach Oscar Marin and is confident the form that helped his record 25 saves for Texas in 2018 before moving into primarily a set-up role after being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline is not far off.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve lost much of the pep in my step,” the 27-year-old said. “The ball’s coming out hot. Curveball is sharp. I feel like I have my command. I’m convicted when I’m up there. I have confidence. I don’t feel like the quarantine necessarily knocked me off my game.”

Kela returns to a team that is a major-league worst 3-13. He’s aware that opportunities to be a difference-maker in the ninth might not come along that often. He’s told Shelton to feel free to use him in whatever high-leverage situation works best and if that’s not the final frame, so be it.

“With the way that we’ve been playing ball, I just want to be able to get out there to secure the innings that are most important for us to move forward and put a (win) on the board at the end of the night,” Kela said. “If I have to face 3-4-5 in the eighth inning because that’s the most pivotal inning, that’s what I’m here for.”

Though Kela is careful to talk only in the present tense, he’s in an unusual spot in his career. The Pirates are in the beginning stages of a reboot, and Kela is one of the few tradeable assets they have. He’s also on the brink of free agency and it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would spend big on a closer for a team whose return to contention might still be a few years down the road.

Not that Kela is in the mood to think about the future. It’s been enough of a journey just to get to the present. He endured a chaotic 2019 that included getting suspended for igniting a brawl in Cincinnati with a couple of wayward pitches and being hit with a two-game ban from the Pirates for an altercation with a member of the team’s support staff.

He talked extensively in the spring about his eagerness to turn the page. Six months later, it’s finally time to do just that.

“This is a game of a lot of failure,” Kela said. “You have to go through the ups and downs and to stay even-keeled through it to find success.”

NOTES: Burdi (right forearm strain) will receive what director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk called a “biological injection” and at the moment will not require surgery. He will be re-evaluated in 10-12 weeks. … Starting pitcher Mitch Keller (right lat strain) has yet to play catch but could return at some point this season. … Crick (forearm sprain) will attempt to throw to live hitters next week.