CHARLESTON, WV – Tomorrow I’ll get my first regular season look at Mitch Keller. The right-hander was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, and received an aggressive push to West Virginia this year, pitching at the level at the age of 20. It doesn’t seem like the young age is bothering him that much, as he’s started the season with 15 shutout innings, giving up seven hits, no walks, and striking out 23.
Keller features a fastball that has been sitting 93-96 MPH this year, along with a curve that can be a plus offering when it’s on — and it’s been on during his first three starts. He started getting the feel for a changeup last year, and has looked more comfortable with the pitch so far this year. Everything is pointing to him continuing this progress, and having a breakout season, likely ending up as one of the top 100 prospects in the game by the end of the year.
This has become an annual event in West Virginia. Every year, a new prospect breaks out and emerges up the ranks in the system. Some of them come from out of nowhere. Others entered the system with bigger bonuses, and the hope of such a breakout. There have certainly been breakout prospects at other levels, but for whatever reason, most of the big ones come at this level.
The recent trend started four years ago when the Pirates sent a group of young international talent to the level. The big breakouts that year were Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, although Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna showed promise, and still remain in the system as prospects. Elias Diaz was also in that group, but took a few more years to become a prospect.
Prior to that year, all of those guys were seen as prospects to varying degrees. Osuna, Garcia, and Hanson made the back half of our top 50. Polanco was a lot more raw, but a guy with a ton of tools who had been grabbing my attention since I first saw him in 2010. The Pirates gave the entire group an aggressive push to full-season ball, and a few of them broke out, seeing their raw tools turning into actual results.
The next year, the Pirates had a bigger breakout. Tyler Glasnow was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 and given a $600,000 signing bonus. Nothing was known about him at the time, other than the fact that he was very tall, wore size 17 shoes, and had a fastball that was 88-91 MPH. His velocity jumped in 2012 in the GCL, and he saw a massive breakout in 2013 with West Virginia, propelling him to becoming one of the top pitching prospects in the game.
Glasnow, Polanco, and Hanson are the biggest breakout stories, with all of them going on to becoming top 100 prospects in the game. But the Pirates have had smaller scale breakouts in the process.
The same year Glasnow emerged, the Pirates had Dilson Herrera stepping up at the level. He was traded that fall as the big piece for Marlon Byrd. The next year, JaCoby Jones had a breakout year. A year later, he was traded, this time for Joakim Soria. Herrera was a bigger bonus guy than Polanco and Hanson, but still relatively small at $220,000, when you consider the top international prospects usually get seven figures. Jones was an athletic third round pick who the Pirates ended up moving to shortstop, trying to get more value out of him, and that value increase led to him being a trade piece last year.
The breakouts continued last year, when Yeudy Garcia came out of nowhere to be the big breakout in the system. Garcia was almost unheard of, making the jump from the DSL to West Virginia, which is a massively aggressive jump. He flew under the radar because he signed late, going to college in the Dominican before signing. He had a great fastball, and that really played up in West Virginia last year. That fastball that he showed last year hasn’t been as good this year, and he’s relied on the slider a bit too much, leading to some struggles. But he still emerged as an actual prospect at the level.
I haven’t even mentioned the pitchers who weren’t “breakouts” in West Virginia, but quietly emerged at the level. Nick Kingham is one of those guys, posting a 5.50 ERA and a 63:24 K/BB ratio in 68.2 innings in his first half with West Virginia in 2012. He closed out the year with a 3.09 ERA and a 54:12 K/BB ratio in 58.1 innings in the second half, and continued that success in higher levels.
Clay Holmes did the same thing the next year. He posted a 4.98 ERA in 72.1 innings in the first half, with a 48:49 K/BB ratio in the first half. He improved in the second half with a 2.70 ERA in 46.2 innings, with a 42:20 K/BB ratio. He was derailed by Tommy John after that, but has carried the control improvements over to his return to the mound.
Both pitchers were high upside, big bonus draft picks. They both saw control problems early in West Virginia, then improved in the second half and carried those improvements to higher levels. It’s not going to grab headlines like Glasnow or Polanco, but those guys emerged as top prospects in the system, and the improvements started in West Virginia.
The reason the Pirates get these breakouts is because they play the numbers game. They draft a lot of high upside prep players. They don’t spend seven figures on the best international players, but spend that amount on 7-10 guys who aren’t as well known, but have the same tools as the top guys. Then, they give all of those guys aggressive promotions to challenge them against older talent, and one or two always end up breaking out.
This year’s group is led by Keller, who was a second round pick, and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was a first round compensation pick. Those guys aren’t in the same class as Polanco, since they had high profiles due to their draft positions. They’re a bit closer to Glasnow, since they were signed to big bonuses with the hope for a breakout.
Beyond Keller and Hayes, the Pirates have Tito Polo, who is another toolsy, high upside guy. They’ve got older guys like Casey Hughston, who has some good tools. They’ve got projectable pitchers like JT Brubaker and Dario Agrazal, who could see improvements after some time at the level, working on commanding the fastball and improving their control.
It will continue beyond the 2016 season. Next year’s group in West Virginia looks to include high upside pitchers like Gage Hinsz and Luis Escobar, along with Adrian Valerio, who has some of the best shortstop defense in the system, along with a line drive stroke and the ability to hit to the gaps. Those guys will be joined by other prep picks and international guys making the jump from this year’s short-season leagues, and we should see another breakout in the future.
This is a trend that is great to see for the Pirates. They’re picking lower in the draft, their top prospects in the upper levels are close to graduating, and they will need another wave of prospects to follow the upper level group. Their continued ability to find breakout guys will definitely help the system continue churning out new top prospects to watch each year.
This year, I’m looking forward to watching the breakout of Mitch Keller. And I’m looking forward to getting my first live look of a real game tomorrow.
**I’ll have live coverage of Keller’s start tomorrow in the Prospect Watch, and I’ll have a feature on him on Thursday. To read all of the live reports, and get the best coverage of the minor league system, be sure to subscribe to the site.
**Prospect Watch: Tyler Glasnow Uses Change-Up Effectively in 11 Strikeout Performance. Great outing from Glasnow tonight, and encouraging that he had success while using the changeup so often.
**Giles: Breaking Down the Pirates’ Struggles in the Bullpen. Ed Giles looks at the struggles the Pirates have had with their bullpen, noting the comparisons between this group and the 2014 group.
**Austin Meadows’ Path to Pittsburgh Might Not Be in Center Field. The Pirates will be playing Meadows at the corner outfield spots this year, preparing him for the possibility of breaking into the majors at a corner if an injury comes up.
**Morning Report: Checking the Progress of the 2011 Draft. John Dreker continues his looks at the previous draft results, going back to the 2011 group. That group might be the best of all, yielding Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, and Tyler Glasnow, along with a few other interesting prospects in the system.