It was announced that the Dodgers tendered contracts to James Loney, Clayton Kershaw, and Andre Ethier who were all arbitration-eligible. It was also news that Tony Gwynn Jr. was signed to a two-year $2 million contract. He will make $850,000 next season and $1.15 million in 2012. We like Gwynn, so this deal was a bit of good news. Sadly, Hong-Chih Kuo was not tendered a contract. Ned Colletti said that the Dodgers are still interested in re-signing Kuo, but they are unsure as to whether he still wants to play. Let’s take a look back at his career as a Dodger.
Hong-Chih Kuo, the longest tenured Dodger, was born on July 23, 1981 in Tainan City, Taiwan. He became the 4th MLB player from Taiwan when he made his debut, and he was the first Taiwanese player to play in the All-Star game. Kuo was signed as a free agent by the Dodgers on June 19, 1999 for a bonus of $1.25 million. Unfortunately he had elbow problems, and he underwent two Tommy John surgeries in 2000 & 2003. It wasn’t until 2005 that he was able to pitch regularly. In 2005 he pitched 11 games for the Vero Beach Dodgers and 17 games for the Jacksonville Suns. He came out of the bullpen for his Major League debut on September 2, 2005 against the Colorado Rockies.
It’s hard to remember that this dominant setup man/closer once was a starter. On September 8, 2006, Kuo made his first Major League start after he had appeared in more than 30 games as a reliever. In his debut, he pitched 6 shutout innings and helped the Dodgers win over the New York Mets 5-0. He had three more successful starts, and he ended the 2006 season with a 2.59 ERA as a starting pitcher.
On June 12, 2007, Kuo hit a 412-foot homerun, and he became the first player from Taiwan to hit a homerun in the Majors.
In 2008, Kuo transitioned into a middle reliever and into the set-up role where he excelled. He had another elbow surgery in the preseason, and his endurance as a fifth starter was questionable. Kuo picked up his first career save on August 14, 2007 against the Phillies. He pitched two scoreless and hitless innings. Kuo finished the season with a 5-3 record in 42 games. He started 3 games, and made 39 relief appearances. His overall ERA was 2.14 with 96 strikeouts in 80 innings. Kuo’s 1.69 ERA led all NL relievers for 2008. In relief, he allowed only 49 hits in 69 1/3 innings striking out 86 batters. Batters had a mere .204 average against him. Kuo had a tricep injury which caused him to miss the last 15 games of the season and the NLDS. Torre activated him for the NLCS where he pitched 3 innings in 3 games allowing 2 hits and 1 run and striking out 3.
In 2009 Kuo’s elbow acted up again and he was put on the DL on May 2. He was activated July 27, and pitched in 35 games finishing the season with a 3.00 ERA out of the pen.
In 2010, Kuo started out strong in the first half not allowing a hit to 36 consecutive left-handed batters. On October 3, 2010, Kuo pitched a scoreless 9th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the season finale, which earned him his 12th save of the season. This set a new Dodgers franchise record by finishing the season with an ERA of 1.20, the record for minimum of 50 innings pitched. Eric Gagne, who is Kuo’s idol, held the previous record with an ERA of 1.202. Kuo finished the season with a 3-2 record, pitching 60 innings in relief in 56 appearances, striking out 73 and walking only 18. He converted 12 saves out of 13 opportunities and took over the closer role when Jonathan Broxton melted down in the second half of the season.
In May 2011 Kuo landed on the DL after suffering an anxiety disorder which caused the yips. It was hard for him to maintain control, and the yips caused him to pitch wildly sometimes. Kuo appeared in 40 games for the Dodgers, and finished with a disappointing 9.00 ERA allowing 24 hits and 23 walks in 27 innings pitched. He struck out 36 batters. Kuo underwent his fifth elbow operation this offseason.
When healthy Kuo has a excellent slider, an occasional curveball, and a changeup. Kuo’s resiliency can be seen with his therapy regimen that starts at 12:30pm for a 7:10pm game. Dodgers trainer Conte explained his routine, “I wish you guys could see what he puts himself through,” said Conte. “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.”
When asked about his health issues Kuo said, “I’m not the only guy with problems,” Kuo said. “Maybe I’m the only one with four surgeries, but everybody has issues. I’m not special. I’ve got a good life. I’m a Major League player; I make some money. I’m happy with what I am.” Kuo’s talent has been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime arm.”
As long as Kuo is healthy, he is dynamite. You can’t help but root for him to make another comeback. He has mentioned that if he doesn’t play baseball anymore, he would like to open a restaurant in his home country of Taiwan. Whatever his decision will be, we have enjoyed watching him pitch as a Dodger.