BRADENTON, Fla. – I was taking some photos of batting practice the other day at LECOM Park when Jordy Mercer walked up to me and asked my opinion on Mitch Keller. This isn’t an uncommon practice. MLB players hear about minor league guys, but rarely see them, if ever. So guys like Mercer, who I’ve covered and talked with for almost a decade, will often ask me how good certain guys can be.
Mercer then said he was surprised that Keller wasn’t in camp, since the Pirates usually bring top prospects like him into big league camp to get the experience. I was surprised by this as well. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both were invited to Major League camp a year before they were expected to arrive in Pittsburgh. Keller could arrive this year, so you’d expect him there for the experience.
The reason the Pirates didn’t do the same thing was because of the circumstances that Keller had last year. He had a back injury during the season, which shortened his innings. The Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League in the offseason to make up for those innings. But because of that, he had a shorter offseason. The Pirates wanted him resting and getting a full offseason, rather than coming to camp early just for the experience.
“That was the main driver,” Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said. “We needed to put some more workload on him [in the AFL], and he needed to finish healthy and strong. So let’s make sure we take care of him in the offseason, and don’t shorten his offseason more by bringing him to big league camp when he’s not competing for the rotation. That was the main driver for that.”
I asked Keller about that when he arrived in camp, and also wanted to rule out an injury (don’t worry, there was none, and he threw a bullpen this afternoon). He said that he wasn’t even throwing when the MLB players reported, so he clearly got some extra time to rest before the season. Still, he was also expecting to go to MLB camp.
“I was kind of disappointed,” Keller said. “Just talking through with [Minor League Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell] and everybody, it just makes sense with where I’m at. I had a shorter offseason. There’s no need to push it. It would have been great to get the experience. But I’ll be a leader here at minor league camp. I know those guys up there pretty well anyways. I was kind of disappointed, but I’m kind of past that now.”
One good thing is that Keller already has a key connection in big league camp in Jameson Taillon. He and Taillon already talk frequently. They even share the same agent, with Keller switching to Matt Laird of Excel Sports this offseason. Taillon even mentioned to me last week that he would like to embrace his new leadership role on the team by helping Keller when he eventually arrives.
“If a guy like Mitch Keller comes up, I’d love to take him under my wing, and go to dinners with him, show him the ropes, and take him through the routine on the field,” Taillon said.
According to Keller, that relationship has already started.
“He’s been just reaching out to me, it’s been really good to be able to have that connection, so if that day does come, and when it does come then I’ll already have someone there I can go to,” Keller said. “He’s looked at as the leader of the squad up there, so that’s really cool.”
The Pirates hope that all happens sooner than later. It might even happen this year, with Keller arriving in the second half. At least, that’s his goal.
“I feel really good coming off the AFL,” Keller said. “It was a really good experience, and I think that’s going to propel me to face Double-A, Triple-A, and even Major League guys. That’s my goal, is getting up there this year, and hopefully I can help with wherever we’re at as a team. That’s my goal, and if it happens, awesome. If it doesn’t, I’ll be ready next year.”
Broadway said that this could be a possibility, and that part of the reason to delay the start of his work this year was to keep him fresh for late in the season.
“He’s at the upper levels, so if he pushes his hand all the way through, now you’re talking about a really short offseason on the back side of an injury, and then trying to pitch into hopefully November,” Broadway said. “[Bringing him in early is] probably not that smart and not taking care of him the best way we can, using all of the information we’ve got.”
Keller will continue developing his fastball and curveball in the upper levels, learning when and how to use those pitches. He’s also working to get his changeup to becoming an MLB-ready pitch, and says that he feels like he’s on the right track with that, after going through some late-season changes last year.
The Pirates have been more aggressive with Keller than any other pitcher they’ve had out of high school. Holding him back from MLB camp is one of the rare times where they haven’t been aggressive with his placement. But it seems that is with the focus of giving him the next aggressive push up to the big leagues. If he continues showing the progress he’s shown so far against upper level guys, then he could force his way into the majors by the end of this year.