Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: This time, Pirates have no choice but turn to Mitch Keller
The Pittsburgh Pirates spent Saturday making moves and general manager Neal Huntington spent Sunday explaining the decisions on his weekly radio show.
The biggest was made for him.
Before Nick Kingham was designated for assignment — likely signaling his ending with the club — and Rookie Davis was placed on the 10-day injured list with a blister on his right middle finger, Mitch Keller painted the Pirates into a corner.
The 23-year-old right-hander, the Pirates’ top prospect and one of the best in baseball, recorded 13 strikeouts in pitching five scoreless innings Friday night at Toledo.
If that dominant effort didn’t force the Pirates to start Keller on Wednesday at the Atlanta Braves, the shellacking suffered by Davis and Kingham on Saturday in Milwaukee left them no choice.
1. Not so fast: Huntington said Keller is among the options to start Wednesday but also mentioned the Pirates are working through internal and external options.
That’s code for saying the Pirates are doing everything possible to prevent Keller from reaching Super Two status, which isn’t a deadline but rather a moving target.
Huntington noted Keller allowed a single and walked the next two batters to load the bases in the first inning Friday, alluding to the trouble he encountered in his major league debut on Memorial Day at Cincinnati.
Where Keller gave up a grand slam on his way to a six-run first against the Reds, he struck out the next seven batters against Toledo.
Ideally, the Pirates could have waited another 10 days to recall Keller so his next major-league start would be in front of a friendly crowd at PNC Park.
But with Joe Musgrove scheduled to pitch Monday, Chris Archer on Tuesday and Jordan Lyles on Thursday, there is an opening for a starter Wednesday.
And Keller is the obvious pick.
2. External options: If Huntington is serious about pursuing external options for the pitching staff, he should be prioritizing the bullpen.
Keone Kela and Nick Burdi still are out, and the Pirates continue to shuffle the same deck of relievers from Triple-A Indianapolis without much luck.
Michael Feliz was recalled Saturday, only to give up the go-ahead run against the Brewers. Richard Rodriguez returned, only to blow the lead again in Sunday’s 5-2 loss.
Once the Pirates’ strength, the bullpen now is their most glaring weakness.
3. Farewell, Nick: With Kingham out of minor league options, Huntington spoke as if his days with the Pirates are over.
Instead of waiting to see if Kingham clears waivers, Huntington said the Pirates “fully anticipate” another team will take a chance on the right-hander.
“This is the type of player that typically gets traded in this process,” Huntington said, noting pitchers with Kingham’s pedigree as a former top-100 prospect are valued by opponents even though he gave up six runs (all earned) on six hits in 2 1/3 innings against Milwaukee.
The Pirates gave Kingham plenty of chances, whether it was in the starting rotation or in long relief. But he allowed 32 earned runs on 45 hits, including six home runs, and 13 walks in his past 24 1/3 innings.
Kingham wasn’t the only one out of options.
4. Blame game: The Pirates had to move on, even if Kingham goes on to have success elsewhere.
The concern would be he could revive his career, which would make the Pirates look bad in retrospect.
“Nick may go on and have a nice career,” Huntington said, “but it had been an extended period of time of struggle and of us not being able to help him be the pitcher that he was trying to be.”
But the Pirates can’t afford for their top pitching prospects to fail to live up to their billing, especially after seeing Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow shine since being traded.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has a well-earned reputation as a sage for his work with reclamation projects from A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ. But the struggles of the young pitchers who go on to have success elsewhere should raise concerns.
5. Differing debuts: Consider the potential juxtaposition of Keller replacing Kingham in the rotation, given the drastic differences in their Pirates debuts.
Where the Reds batted around the order on Keller, Kingham took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 29, 2018.
Perhaps that dynamic debut increased the expectations for Kingham. Perhaps the disastrous debut will lower them for Keller.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .