Kevin Gorman: Despite spring struggles, top prospect Mitch Keller hopes to be ‘big piece’ for Pirates
When Mitch Keller arrived at his first big-league spring camp, the 22-year-old right-handed pitcher found his locker situated between the stalls of Jameson Taillon, Garth Brooks and Chris Archer at Pirate City.
As awestruck as he was to be next to a country music legend, Keller was more enamored by the opportunity to take tidbits from the daily routines of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Opening Day and home opener starters.
“It’s pretty sweet, being in-between everybody and just going through the workday with all of them and see how they go about their workdays and the mentality and focus they bring every day,” Keller said. “You see all the work they put in. I feel like I was on a good track before watching them.”
Keller is the top prospect in the Pirates’ system and ranked No. 19 in baseball by MLB Pipeline, so he’s on a fast track to the majors. The Pirates made keeping Keller such a priority that they refused to include him in the trade-deadline deal for Archer, instead sending a former first-rounder in pitcher Shane Baz to Tampa Bay.
No wonder Keller came to spring training with lofty aspirations. Even though he wasn’t considered one of the candidates for the fifth spot in the starting rotation, Keller had his own plans.
“Well, in my mind I want to break. That’s my goal,” Keller said last month, referring to making the Opening Day roster. “When I do get up there, I want to be a big piece to what we’re trying to aim for here, a World Series. I can’t really decide when that’s going to be, when I go up. It’s out of my hands. I just focus on getting better every day.”
So far this spring, Keller has looked like he’s a long way from PNC Park. He got rocked so bad in his first two starts that he didn’t see the second inning. Keller allowed two runs on three hits in his first outing, against the Minnesota Twins. It was even worse against Tampa Bay on Sunday, when he surrendered a leadoff homer on his second pitch of a 29-pitch, four-run first against the Tampa Bay Rays. Keller then walked two batters and gave up an RBI single followed by an RBI double.
“It’s all part of the learning opportunity,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I do believe in the long run it’s going to sharpen him in a variety of ways.”
Safe to say, Keller will do the sharpening by starting the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he was 3-2, with a 4.82 ERA and 1.548 WHIP in 10 starts last summer.
After dominating at Double-A Altoona – where he was 9-2, with a 2.72 ERA and 1.116 WHIP in 14 starts – Keller soon learned that he couldn’t be so reliant on his fastball, especially after giving up a three-run homer in the first inning in allowing eight runs in his Indy debut against Columbus. He gave up another homer and allowed five runs in his next start against Louisville, striking out 10 and walking four.
“It’s just execution of my pitches, a little bit of sequencing here and not falling into too many fastballs,” Keller said. “I think that’s always been my out pitch. If you can’t throw something else, they’re going to sniff that out and really take advantage of you.”
That isn’t the only sign of Keller’s learning curve. The week before his first start of the spring, he talked about how he’s worked on his changeup over the past year or so, how it’s “coming along great” and “is in a really good spot.”
“I think I’m phasing out the developmental stage there and learning when to throw it,” Keller said. “I really like the action I have on it right now.”
Keller is getting his first chance to work with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who is impressed that Keller isn’t overwhelmed by being in major-league camp and is respectful of the pitching process.
But Searage wasn’t as complimentary about Keller’s changeup.
“The changeup’s got to get better,” Searage said. “It’s a little too firm. He doesn’t really have that feel with it right now. It shows. It comes in dribs and drabs.”
That’s a drastic difference in assessments from pitching coach to pitching prospect, but there is no denying that the Pirates are counting on Keller to become a starter in their rotation. Whether that’s in spot starts sometime this summer or as a September call-up will depend on how he refines his pitch repertoire and throws his changeup with consistency.
“This is still a young kid that’s developing,” Searage said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder. “He’s got to get some man-muscles, too. He’s still a baby. He’s going to have to fill out a little bit because that long haul up there in the major leagues will take a toll on you.
“He’s a young kid with so much talent and so much possibilities that he has in his back pocket, it’s just you’ve got to let nature take its course, you’ve got to let the game take its course and let him dictate when he tells us he’s ready by him pitching out there.”
The speed of Keller’s major-league arrival could be determined by his off-speed pitch. He can’t control the course of his call-up, until he can change it with his changeup. Until then, a big piece of the Pirates’ future has to focus on getting better every day so he’s ready to go.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .