On August 21st, 2012, I made a special trip up to Trenton to see the Altoona Curve in action. It’s rare that we will see a Pirates’ minor league affiliate play on the road, even now when we have extensive coverage of every team in the system. However, there was good reason to make the trip for this one game: top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon was set to make his debut at the Double-A level.
This weekend, Altoona will be in Trenton, and another top pitching prospect drafted out of the prep ranks could be making his Double-A debut. Sean McCool reported yesterday that Keller was being promoted to Altoona. His next start in Bradenton would have been Sunday on six days rest. That means he will either start Saturday or Sunday for Altoona in Trenton.
It’s almost a bit poetic in a way for Keller to be making his Double-A debut in the same stadium that Taillon made his debut. But Taillon isn’t the guy I think of when thinking about Keller’s quick promotion through the lower levels.
Taillon was a first round pick, and a relatively polished pitcher out of the prep ranks. He went to West Virginia during his first pro season, then split his second year between Bradenton and Altoona. He returned to Altoona for most of his third pro season, then moved to Indianapolis at the end of the year. He would have been on pace to make the majors the next year, but Tommy John and a hernia shut him down for about two years.
Keller was a different story starting out. He was a second round pick, given an over-slot bonus of $1 M to sign. He was impressive in our first views of him in the GCL that summer, hitting 94 MPH with ease, along with a nasty curveball, although with some command issues. He continued drawing rave reviews from scouts the following year in extended Spring Training. He spent the short-season in Bristol, and still showed command issues.
That offseason, Keller made a simple adjustment that led to much improved command, and propelled him up the prospect charts. He held his glove arm firm above his waist during his delivery, simplifying things and cutting out extra movement. This led to amazing results in West Virginia, and a rare late-season promotion to Bradenton.
The promotion to Bradenton was when I realized the Pirates were treating Keller different from all former prep pitchers that came before him. Taillon spent the entire year in West Virginia when he was at that level. Tyler Glasnow spent an entire year at the level. Nick Kingham spent an entire year at the level. Every former prep pitcher who went through Low-A spent an entire year there before moving up.
That wasn’t a coincidence. The Pirates like their prep pitchers spending an entire year in Low-A. It gets them used to pitching on a five-day schedule for an entire season, and allows them the flexibility to cut down on innings later in the season if needed. The West Virginia pitching staff is typically built to allow for shorter outings throughout the season, with a lot of long-relief options. Bradenton doesn’t typically have that, so promoting a four inning starter in August would blow up the bullpen at the level.
Taillon legitimately had things to work on, and the Pirates were monitoring his innings at a time when they were much more strict about that in the low levels. Glasnow had video game numbers, but also had things to work on. Kingham and other prep pitchers like Clay Holmes made improvements in the second half, but still stayed at the level.
Keller not only moved up, but wasn’t restricted at the end of the year. In his final start in the Florida State League playoffs, he pitched eight innings, which was unheard of for an A-ball pitcher in the past.
I knew heading into this year that Keller would continue getting an aggressive push, and that he would finish the year in Altoona. Part of that was due to the aggressive push he received last year, which was unlike any other pitcher before him. It was also the feeling I was getting from inside the organization.
When I think of how Keller is being moved through the system, it’s a bit more like Gerrit Cole than any prep pitcher. That is to say that he’s being moved more like he’s a polished high first round pick out of the college ranks, rather than a prep pitcher to be conservative with.
That’s not a bad idea. I’ve said this a few times in the last year, but I’ll say it again — Keller is one of the most advanced pitchers the Pirates have had in A-ball. He’s got much better fastball command than Glasnow had at the level. He’s not as hitable as Taillon was at the level, or even Cole. Both of those pitchers elevated their fastballs, and needed work to get the pitch down and move it around. Keller has much better fastball command, with the ability to move it all around the zone.
This doesn’t mean that Keller will continue his development to be the best of that group. Obviously that is possible, but dependent on future progress.
What it does mean is that Keller is deserving of this aggressive push that no one else has really received because he’s more advanced for his current level than anyone the Pirates have had in the past.
Keller will now get about a month in Double-A, and maybe more than that if Altoona makes the playoffs. He would also be a prime candidate for the Arizona Fall League, since he missed some innings this year with back tightness. Assuming he handles the current level as well as he handled his time in Bradenton, I could see him continuing his quick progression through the minors, having a shot at Indianapolis early in 2018, with a chance to reach the majors by the end of the season at this pace.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.