“When will Mitch Keller arrive in Pittsburgh?”
That’s the question that comes up every time we write an article about Keller, although we don’t necessarily need to write about Keller for the question to come up.
Keller is the top prospect in the system, and a potential top of the rotation arm. The Pirates have gotten good results from their rotation so far, but Keller can definitely give them a boost, assuming he can make a seamless transition to the majors, which I think he can do. But will he have a shot at arriving in 2018, especially when he’s starting the year in Altoona?
I’ll first say that my answer to this question during Spring Training largely relied upon the idea that the Pirates could contend. During that time, it seemed unlikely that they could contend this year, with the hopes hinging on a run at the second Wild Card spot. I don’t want to make much out of ten games, but after opening the season 8-2, and after showing great offense, good starting pitching, and the bullpen being the one flaw, it feels a little easier to imagine them as contenders.
Keller’s chances of arriving will depend on whether he’s ready. But if he is ready, I think he’d be more likely to arrive in the second half if the Pirates are still contending.
So how do we know when he’s ready?
First, there’s the jump from Altoona to Indianapolis. The Pirates typically leave starting pitchers in Altoona for the equivalent of a full season of innings. The biggest exception was Gerrit Cole, who was promoted to Triple-A after just 59 innings. Cole wasn’t entirely ready for the promotion at the time, and the move was more about convenience to get him in Triple-A for the playoffs at the end of the season.
Keller has 40.2 innings combined in Altoona during the regular season, plus 16.1 innings in the playoffs last year. So he’s up to 57 combined innings. That doesn’t mean that the Pirates will promote him as early as they promoted Cole, which would be now, or after his second inning of work on Sunday. But I think Cole’s promotion does show that they could promote Keller quickly if he shows he’s ready. That will probably take a few starts.
If they go like the one on Sunday went, then I could see Keller moving up quickly. He showed good stuff with his new changeup, while showing command of his fastball and getting strikeouts with his curve. If he keeps pitching like that, there won’t be much to work on in Altoona.
It’s important to note here that Keller has moved up unlike any other pitcher in team history.
His first year in West Virginia ended with a promotion to Bradenton, where he pitched an eight inning gem in the playoffs. The Pirates had never promoted a former prep pitcher to Bradenton at the end of their year in West Virginia. Tyler Glasnow? He dominated the level, then moved up to Bradenton the next season. Jameson Taillon? He was limited to four inning outings by the end of his West Virginia season. Clay Holmes? Nick Kingham? Full seasons in West Virginia.
Keller also got the quick promotion to Altoona, spending a little over 80 innings in Bradenton before his promotion.
The Pirates have shown a tendency to promote Keller quickly. I think that’s mostly about his stuff and makeup. They’re not treating Keller like they’ve treated other prep pitchers. They’re treating Keller closer to a top college guy like Gerrit Cole. If your reaction to “Will Keller be in Pittsburgh this year?” is a comment about how they move pitchers slowly, know that it has been the opposite for Keller.
So I could see Keller moving up from Altoona in the first half, and probably early in the first half. If he’s still there when June rolls around, I’d be surprised.
When would he make the jump from Indianapolis? Again, this depends on how he fares at the level, and how the upper level guys adjust to him. Using Cole as a guide again, the Pirates made the promotion after a little less than 80 innings. There was also the Super Two factor with Cole — he made his debut on June 11th — although he was having issues in Triple-A until the final few starts, so it’s not like he would have been up considerably earlier.
If all goes well, I could see Keller spending about two months in Indianapolis, similar to what Cole did. Assuming he’s promoted to Indianapolis early in the year, that could put a promotion to Pittsburgh by the end of July/early August.
Keep in mind that Keller said his goal this year was to arrive in Pittsburgh, and when I asked front office members about that, they didn’t do much to rule out the possibility. If he had no chance, they would have told him that in the entrance interview, and he wouldn’t have an impossible goal. Plus, they held him back at the start of camp to give him rest so he could pitch later in the season, into October and November. The minor league season ends in early September. Reading between the lines, they seem to be preparing for the strong possibility that Keller could arrive this year.
Again, I think that’s more likely if the Pirates are still contending at that point. Based on what we’ve seen the first ten games of the season, the Pirates seem like they have a good chance of remaining in the race by the end of July. That means, assuming he’s ready, Keller could be one of the biggest additions for the Pirates down the stretch.