Williams: Last Night Was a Reminder That the Pirates’ Rotation Has a Lot of Future Upside

In his last two playoff starts, Mitch Keller has combined for 17 shutout innings on 171 pitches.

He pitched a complete game shutout last night for Altoona on 90 pitches, with just three base runners allowed. He went eight shutout innings in the playoffs last year for Bradenton, needing only 81 pitches that time.

Those two performances don’t make a career, but they provide further reason to dream on Keller’s upside. He was extremely efficient in both outings, averaging about ten pitches per inning, with the rest of the stat line obviously showing his skills. Both starts also came shortly after a promotion to the new level, showing that he was adjusting quickly and not having many issues with the new challenges. Sean McCool recently wrote about this, detailing what Keller had been working on since arriving in Double-A, and how he had settled in just before the post-season.

We’ve been high on Keller every step of the way, and had no issues making him our pick for the top pitching prospect in the organization over Tyler Glasnow heading into this season. The reason is what he just showed. Keller is a special pitcher.

Even though he was a second round prep pitcher in 2014, I’ve likened Keller to an upper first round college guy this year in terms of expectations and the speed in which he could be moved through the system. He would have been eligible for the 2017 draft, and with his skills, probably would have been a candidate for the top overall pick. A guy like that moves through the system quickly, and has top of the rotation upside.

The Pirates have moved Keller quickly through the system, more than any other player before him. No former prep pitcher has been promoted from West Virginia to Bradenton during the season — a list that includes Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes. Keller got that promotion.

It was expected that Keller would get a promotion to Altoona at mid-season, despite his age. He went down with a back injury, costing him some time in Bradenton, and putting a promotion at risk. Still, he ended up getting that promotion, and will get time in the Arizona Fall League this offseason to pad his upper level experience.

Barring any injuries, I wouldn’t be surprised if Keller is in the majors at some point in the second half of 2018, and I could definitely see him arriving during the 2019 season. I think he’s going to be another top of the rotation guy, pairing well with Jameson Taillon going forward as a perfect Gerrit Cole replacement.

But Keller isn’t the only potential impact guy in the minors right now. We all know the story with Tyler Glasnow. He puts up electric numbers in the minors, due to his electric stuff. The flaws in his game — poor control being the biggest — don’t show up in Triple-A, but cost him in the majors.

Glasnow has been performing better in the minors lately, and that looks beyond his always-strong numbers to the actual stuff. He deserves another shot in the MLB rotation, and will get that later in September when Indianapolis is finished with the playoffs.

They came a step closer to that last night, losing with Glasnow on the mound to go down 2-0 in a best of five series. Despite that, last night was encouraging, in that Glasnow turned in a strong outing in the playoffs. That hasn’t always been the case for him, as John Dreker pointed out yesterday.

Glasnow has admitted in the past that he lets his adrenaline get the best of him at times, leading to him losing control of his pitches. This would happen when he would reach a new level, and would previously happen in the minor league playoffs. It also happened at times in the majors and during Spring Training. He’s been much better about that this year, leading to his ability to improve his changeup, and work on limiting his control issues.

I don’t know if Glasnow has it all figured out at this point. I don’t know if he’s on track to now reach his top of the rotation upside, or even be a middle of the rotation starter. Only time will tell for that.

What I do know is that Glasnow just turned 24, so he’s too young to be written off. I also know that for about a year and a half, I’ve seen him as a guy who wasn’t ready for the majors, and unlikely to be a big upgrade on the rotation. That played out this year with a 7.45 ERA in 12 starts. I see him in a different light now. I can’t say if he has it all figured out, but I can say that he has shown a lot of improvements over where he’s been in the past when I’ve argued against calling him up. Combine that with him having a ton of upside, and the Pirates have a nice wild card for the rotation going forward.

I still think Keller is the safer bet, and I don’t think it’s close. But with Keller and Glasnow, the Pirates have plenty of upside for their rotation in the future. Add in the depth of pitching in Triple-A, with guys like Steven Brault, Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, and so on, and they’ve got a good mix of options going forward to pair with Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Ivan Nova — or to replace some of those options when they’ve left.

Prospects aren’t guaranteed, and pitchers are definitely not guaranteed, so I won’t say anything about the quality of future rotations. I will say that the Pirates are in as good of a position as you can be in here, stocking up on a lot of pitching talent, with a few high upside guys. While you can’t guarantee future rotation success with prospects, you can certainly greatly increase your chances of future success with the recipe the Pirates currently have.

  • Pujols pretty much skipped AAA (and AA), lets see if Keller can do that too 🙂

    • Not a chance.

    • Jose Fernandez skipped straight from A+ in 2012 -where he only spent 1/2 a year after starting the year in the SAL(A)- to the MLB 2013 out of spring training. Which is incredable, especially for a 19 y/o drafted out of high school the year before. So it can be done, but he was a pretty special athlete.

  • Agree or disagree with this piping hot take:

    this is the most promising crop of AA / AAA / pre-arb MLB young players that the Pirates have had in the Huntington era. maybe even since the 70’s.

    • There really isn’t another choice, is there?

      • Touche

        • Didn’t even mean it in a way that’s damning with faint praise, although it could be interpreted that way.

          Taillon/Bell/Tucker/Glas/Meadows/Keller would hold up any any era.

          • lol oh!

            yeah those are definitely the upside guys, but even just the amount of guys who look like useful major leaguers like Frazier, Luplow, Williams, Brault, Kuhl, Kingham, Moroff, Newman, Diaz, Osuna, Neverauskas, Santana is something that we haven’t seen before. They’ve had the top-heavy systems since 2010. There’s finally a big chunk of solid-major-leaguer type prospects all in the high minors/majors. That’s never really happened before.

      • It just pains you to give even a sliver of praise to NH.

  • Glasnow has walked two or less in 9 consecutive starts and in 10 of his last 12.

    Overall, since Glasnow switched to pitching solely from the stretch, he’s walked a grand total of 24 batters in 13 starts (82.1 IP) and, including the game last night, he’s got his BB/9 down to a very respectable 2.649.

    He’s also missing a lot more bats. His strikeout rates are 13.245/9.

    • yep. i’ve never been more excited about Glasnow than I am now.

      I’ve always had my doubts because of the BBs in the minor leagues. But my goodness, he seems like a new pitcher now.

  • The way that Kuhl and Williams have been throwing lately, it looks like Kingham’s immediate future is going to be as a long man and sport starter in 2018, unless Cole is traded. Then we would have a nice battle between Kingham, Brault, TG and Holmes. Nice problem to have.

    • I would prefer they trade Ivan the Terrible as long as we don’t have to send a prospect with him. Keep Cole at least for 2018 unless someone offers the world for him.

      • Depends on the prospect. If it is guys like the Liriano deal I do it. That deal looks much better in hindsight than it did at the time. Liriano continued to be crap and neither prospects seems to be much of a prospect. If we can save $15-$18 million I am happy to lose 1 or 2 nonprospect/prospects.

        • While he missed much of the year with an injury, McGuire put up an .861 OPS in 136 AA PAs this season. If he were in the Pirates’ org, we’d be saying that something clicked after he came back from his injury and we’d be expecting him to get a mid-season promotion to AAA next year. He’s also still only 22. I’m still vaguely concerned that we’re going to regret losing him in a couple of years.

          • Some may think it clicked. I would weigh it against the larger body of work. Even if he ends up being an All Star, I am not sure I cry over it. Getting out from under Liriano may have been worth it even then.

            • Worth it?!

              The Liriano money was just spent on a season in which the Pirates won’t break .500. Their opportunity to benefit from this trade is now gone.

          • Very telling to see the swing changes Toronto has suggested.

  • Glasnow’s start last night synched up with Taillon assuming he gets rested

  • Hope springs eternal. However, they have to prove it where it counts. Dream on!

  • We’ve been talking about most of these pitchers for 5 years and now we see light at the end of the tunnel. 2018 is going to be very interesting. What is really a difference is we are not talking about guys from the last 2 drafts. 5 years ago there was nobody close to the MLB that we could talk about like these guys. NH really must fill the holes this off season without kang and get on polancos butt about getting ready for baseball. HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL… can’t wait for February 2018.

  • Tim: I hope you find that pony. Also, be safe as the storm passes over you.

  • Any chance Keller starts next year in AAA?

    • Possibly – depends on AFL results, but I think AA.

      I moved away from Altoona when I left for college in 1981. I still haven’t seen a single AA game in Altoona. Knoxville has the Cubs AA team, but I just can’t…

  • Tim
    Hope you are safe riding out the storm.
    Are Pirate City and Lecom Field in any danger?

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