Prospect Retro: Hong-Chih Kuo
Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retro for Dodgers lefty Hong-Chih Kuo.
Kuo was signed by the Dodgers back in 1999 out of Taiwan, earning a lofty $1.25 million bonus. He impressed scouts with his mid-90s fastball and power breaking ball, and his command was also considered promising, if erratic. He got off to a good start with three shutout innings for San Bernadino in the California League, fanning seven. . .but he blew out his elbow in that game and had to have Tommy John surgery. I gave him a Grade C in my 2001 book, noting that he had excellent potential as a power pitcher but we needed to see how the injury recovery went.
He came back in 2001 and made six starts for the Gulf Coast League Dodgers, posting a 2.33 ERA with a 21/4 K/BB in 19 innings, allowing 13 hits. Scouting reports indicated that his 95 MPH fastball was back, but that he seemed reluctant to use his breaking ball much, resulting in regression. This was understandable considering the injury, and I gave him a Grade C+ in the '02 book, noting that his stock could rise rapidly if he proved his arm was sound.
The recovery was not as smooth as expected. He pitched in seven games in 2002, pitching 14 innings between the GCL and Vero Beach but limited by more elbow pain. Scouting reports remained positive about his stuff and he posted a 17/3 K/BB. I gave him a Grade B- in the '03 book.
Alas, he missed all of '03 with more surgery. The elbow pain got a lot worse and he ended up needing a second Tommy John procedure, missing the entire season. He returned to the mound in 2004 but pitched just six innings before the pain returned. The surgeons went back in and cleaned out some scar tissue. At least he didn't need another transplant, but at this point it was an open question if his arm would ever be right.
Kuo looked good in the spring of 2005 but the Dodgers were cautious, moving him to relief at Vero Beach. He responded with a 2.08 ERA and a 42/10 K/BB in 26 innings. Moved up to Double-A Jacksonville, he posted a 1.91 ERA with a 44/11 K/BB in 28 innings. He got five innings of work for Los Angeles, fanning 10 but showing command problems with five walks. Still, it was a successful season: he still threw 95 MPH, and his arm didn't crumple. I gave him a Grade B- in the '06 book, projecting that he could be an overpowering reliever if he could stay healthy and refine his command a bit more.
Kuo split '06 and '07 between Triple-A and the majors, then posted a 2.14 ERA with a 96/21 K/BB in 80 innings for the Dodgers in '08. He was limited to 30 innings by more elbow problems in '09, but remained effective when he was on the mound. The elbow has been bothersome again this spring, but he's been great when on the mound with a 1.69 ERA and a 13/3 K/BB in 11 innings with just five hits allowed.
In his major league career, Kuo has a 3.67 ERA with a 249/89 K/BB in 216 innings, 180 hits, 117 ERA+, 2.95 FIP.
There isn't any secret with Kuo. The guy is a great pitcher, but he's fragile and his workload has to be monitored carefully. There are occasional rumors that he could move back to starting, but Kuo has had three elbow surgeries and the joint still flares up on him frequently. Keep him in the pen, and be happy if you get 50-60 innings of strong relief out of him. It is a testimony to modern sports medicine, as well as his own persistence, that he's on the mound at all.