By Steve Samek
The Pirates’ minor league system, ranked 11th by Baseball America, is headlined by top pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. Supplement the pitching talent with center fielder Austin Meadows and first baseman Josh Bell and you have a system that gives fans hope for a many years to come.
Keller is a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher. He was drafted in the second round with the 64th-overall pick.
“He went from a high upside arm with questions to a guy who is now in the top-tier of prospects in the system and could arguably make a case as the best prospect in the system,” wrote Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects.
Keller started his path to the majors in the Gulf Coast League, where he started eight games while sporting a 1.98 ERA over 27.1 innings pitched. This would earn Keller a promotion to Bristol in the Appalachian League in 2015. An injury during Extended Spring Training shorted Keller’s season. Keller made six starts that year while posting 5.49 ERA in 19.2 innings pitched.
With the injuries behind him, Keller was sent to Low-A West Virginia to pitch for the Power. After posting an 8-5 record and a 2.46 ERA in 23 starts, Keller earned a promotion to High-A Bradenton.
Keller pitched six innings of shutout baseball in his first start with Bradenton to pick up his ninth win of the year. Keller then won both of his starts in the playoffs, striking out nine and allowing three earned runs in 13.1 innings pitched. One of those starts was an eight-inning shutout gem in Game Two of the Florida State League championship series, leading the Marauders to a FSL championship. Keller will continue his year in the Arizona Fall League.
Williams watched Keller’s development and noted that his walk rate was down from a season ago. Keller walked 3.7% of hitters in 2016 against 15.8% in 2015. Walks lead to base runners and extended innings. Extended innings can kill young pitchers and inflate their ERA.
The second change Williams noticed was a change in velocity. Keller jumped from 95 mph to a consistent 94-97 and even touched 99 mph. Velocity and control are both prized commodities for young pitchers; develop both, and you’re an ace of staff.
Granted success at the lower levels could mean hype and then a flame out later, but Keller has a live arm that is worthy of showing off in the Arizona Fall league this year. If he has a solid fall, watch him become a Top 100 prospect.
In the 2017 prospect rankings, Keller will move up to the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect, before earning himself the Pirates’ top-prospect ranking in 2018.
Keller ranks fifth on the Pirates’ Top 30 prospects list behind Glasnow, Meadows, Bell and Kevin Newman. Glasnow just got recalled, but he will not have accumulated enough service time to lose his prospect status. Prospect status is the same as rookie status, which stays in tact as long as a player does not eclipse 130 plate appearances, 50 innings pitched or 45 days of service time. As long as Glasnow has his prospect status, he will be ahead of Keller.
Bell is close to the 45-day service time limit and is likely to accumulate more than 130 plate appearances by the end of the season. That is a spot that Keller will jump in the 2017 Top 30 prospect list.
Meadows is going to be in Pittsburgh soon. He played at Double-A and Triple-A this season with some good results. Meadows hit .311 at Double-A but struggled at Triple-A, hitting .200, though this was in limited action due to a hamstring injury. Meadows will get a second shot at Indianapolis next year with the intentions of him to replace Andrew McCutchen in 2018 or 2019. With Meadows struggling at Triple-A and Keller excelling this season, expect Keller to leap the outfielder in the rankings.
Last in the top four is Kevin Newman, a shortstop prospect and the Pirates’ first-round pick in 2015. Newman dominated at Bradenton, hitting .366 in 41 games before being promoted to Double-A Altoona, where the shortstop hit .288 in 61 games. Newman could join Meadows in Pittsburgh in 2018 as well, but unlike Meadows, Newman performed well enough to stay ahead of Keller on the prospect rankings.
This puts Keller at the No. 3 spot in 2017, with the possibility of him being the Pirates’ top prospect in 2018 if Newman and Meadows lose their rookie status.
Keller will continue his year in the Arizona Fall League. Look for him to start at Double-A next year with late 2017-18 as his timeline to arrive in Pittsburgh.
Watching Keller in black and gold alongside Glasnow, Cole and Taillon is going to be fun for Pirates fans for years to come.