Hong-Chih Kuo didn't become the longest tenured Dodger by giving up.
Just as he has four times before, Kuo will have to recover from elbow surgery. The latest procedure for the relief pitcher is arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow scheduled for Friday, the Dodgers announced today. Tony Jackson of ESPN Los Angeles caught up with Dodgers head trainer Stan Conte:
Conte said the loose body in Kuo's elbow, which was found through an X-ray after Kuo experienced intermittent locking of the elbow while throwing in preparation for an upcoming, five-game exhibition series in his native Taiwan, didn't contribute to Kuo's problems on the mound for the Dodgers this season.
"This particular issue was not the issue,'' Conte said. "He was doing pretty well getting ready for Taiwan, and the day (Monday) before he was supposed to leave, this locking occurred. It happened twice (that day).''
Kuo was scheduled to pitch for the Chinese Taipei national team in at least one of the five games in the MLB Taiwan All-Star series that begins next Tuesday, but instead will have to wait six to eight weeks before even throwing a baseball. Roughly around the end of that recovery period, we should have a better idea about Kuo's whereabouts for 2012.
Kuo made $2.725 million in 2011, and is arbitration eligible one more time. However, after a season marred by wildness and injuries both physical and mental, Kuo will almost certainly be non-tendered by the Dodgers, and if he returns it would likely be on a deal with a small base salary and loads of incentives for games pitched, innings pitched, and/or time on the active roster.
"There's no thought of retirement," Kuo's agent Alan Chang told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times earlier today. That sentiment is different than the final week of the season when Kuo told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com:
"I need a break. I love baseball and that's why I keep going. If I want to still play and somebody wants to give me a try, I play. If not, fine with me. I'll miss it. But I don't want to play unless I enjoy it again."
But given Kuo's history of resilience, would it be any wonder if he plans to pitch again?
He was signed out of high school in Taiwan by the Dodgers in June 1999 for $1.25 million. He made his professional debut in San Bernardino on April 10, 2000 and struck out seven of the 10 batters he faced in his three innings of work. But Kuo's first start was cut short by an elbow injury, one that required Tommy John surgery.
Kuo didn't pitch again until late June 2001, but was limited to seven games and just 19 innings in the Gulf Coast League. In 2002, he pitched seven more games and 14 innings but was shut down again in August. At age 21, Kuo had his second Tommy John surgery, one that would sideline him for all of 2003 and the start of 2004.
In 2004, Kuo rehabbed at extended spring training then was back on a professional mound on June 1, pitching for Class A Columbus. He pitched all of three games and 10 innings in Class A, picking up his first professional win on June 10.
At the end of the 2004 season, Kuo had been a professional baseball player for five years but had pitched just 42 innings.
In 2005, Kuo finally had health on his side, and put up an epic season. Splitting time between Class A Vero Beach and Double A Jacksonville, Kuo struck out 86 batters in 54 innings and put up a 1.99 ERA. He was a September call up to the Dodgers, and pitched in nine games for the big club in his first taste of the major leagues.
Kuo made the Dodgers' bullpen in spring training in 2006, and spent two different months with the big club, shuffling back and forth in between Los Angeles and Triple A Las Vegas. He converted to a starting pitcher in July, and by the end of the year was back with the Dodgers, starting five games in September for the wild card-winning squad. His first start was on September 8, 2006 in New York, on Taiwanese Heritage Night at Shea Stadium, and Kuo picked up his first major league win by tossing six shutout innings.
Kuo's performance in September, combined with the Mets' relative struggles against left-handed pitchers that season, earned him a playoff start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. With one career win at that point, Kuo set the record for fewest career wins by a pitcher to start a playoff game.
In 2007, Kuo began the year on the disabled list with a rotator cuff injury, but by May was back with the Dodgers. After a pair of relief appearances, Kuo returned to the starting rotation, making six starts in June. None was more memorable than on June 12, 2007, when Kuo allowed one run over seven innings to beat the Mets and also homered. Kuo's home run was not only the third of three consecutive home runs in the second inning off John Maine, but it also spawned the infamous bat flip, one of the greatest moments in the history of mankind.
Unfortunately for Kuo his 2007 season ended after June, as he underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow in July.
Kuo was back with a flourish in 2008. After three intermittent starts in April, Kuo found a home in the bullpen and pitched a career-high 80 innings. He struck out 96 against just 21 walks and put up a 1.69 ERA, earning the Setup Man of the Year award from MLB.com. That was a relatively healthy year for Kuo, the only year of the last five seasons that he hasn't had at least one stint on the DL. But he did miss the final three weeks of the season and the division series with a tricep injury, before pitching three innings against the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS.
There were high hopes for Kuo heading into 2009, but after just one month he was shut down with soreness in that pesky left elbow and was sidelined for three months. Things got so bad for Kuo that while warming up for a game at Dodger Stadium in May, Kuo threw two balls onto the field from the left field bullpen. However, once Kuo returned he was lights out, combining with Jonathan Broxton and George Sherrill to give the Dodgers a formidable trio at the back end of their bullpen over the final two months of the season in their march to the best record in the National League.
The highlight of the year for Kuo in 2009 was on July 30 in St. Louis, just his third game back off the disabled list. He inherited a leadoff double in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the runner was sacrificed to third base. Kuo struck out Ryan Ludwick for the second out of the inning, then intentionally walked both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday to load the bases. Left-handed batter Rick Ankiel came to the plate, but Kuo blew him away with three fastballs, prompting a well deserved leg kick from Kuo in a game the Dodgers would eventually win in 10 innings.
Kuo began 2010 on the disabled list, and allowed two runs in his first game of the season, on April 22 in Cincinnati. After that, Kuo hardly gave up anything at all. Kuo allowed six runs over those final 55 appearances and finished with a 1.20 ERA, the best ERA (minimum 30 innings) in the history of the Dodgers.
Kuo ended the 2010 season as the Dodgers' closer, and for the first time in his career Kuo made the All-Star team, a nice reward for a pitcher who constantly amazed his teammates and the training staff with his resiliency. "I wish you guys could see what he puts himself through," Conte told Ken Gurnick in 2008. "He's in constant motion until 11 at night -- ice, heat, ultrasound, message, stretch, flex, leg work, working all the time just to pitch an inning."
To begin 2011 Kuo was a tad wild with four walks to his first 13 batters faced, and he was placed on the disabled list in April with a lower left back strain. "We wondered why he was up, up, up. He was up all the time, even in the bullpen," Don Mattingly said at the time. Back on May 1, Kuo allowed four runs in his first game back and couldn't regain any semblance of command over the next week or so. For the second time in his career, Kuo had the yips, and was placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder.
Kuo missed 36 games while rehabbing in Arizona, but came back in mid-June. Unfortunately though the command never came back, and Kuo was limited to lefty specialist duty and mostly low leverage situations. On the season, Kuo had 21 unintentional walks in 27 innings and a 9.00 ERA. He allowed four home runs, including two to left-handed batters. On a positive note, Kuo did strikeout 36 batters, the highest strikeout rate of his career.
After six trips to the disabled list in the last five years and a fifth career elbow surgery pending, one would understand if Kuo decided to hang up his spikes. But I don't think that will be the case.
Vin Scully is fond of saying, "If you want to make God smile, tell him your plans," alluding to the folly of predicting the future with any sort of certainty. Hong-Chih Kuo's time with the Dodgers may be done, but I wouldn't bet against him coming back from his latest obstacle.
Last two photos courtesy of Getty Images.