There is zero reason for the Pittsburgh Pirates top pitching prospect to remain in the minor leagues any longer
After trading Jordan Lyles to the Milwaukee Brewers this past Monday the Pittsburgh Pirates have an open spot in their starting rotation. While this spot is likely to be filled by Steven Brault when he returns from the injured list this week, there is a pitcher at Triple-A that should have a spot in the starting rotation. That pitcher is top prospect Mitch Keller.
To be honest, even before Lyles was traded Keller should have been in the MLB starting rotation. Lyles should not have lasted in the Pirate rotation for as long as he did. Furthermore, outside of Joe Musgrove and to a lesser extent Trevor Williams, so Pirate starting pitcher has done enough this season to permanently lock down a spot in the starting rotation.
While Keller three MLB starts did not go according to plan, his third and final start was the best of the bunch. Additionally, he is starting to pitch at the highest level he has yet at the Triple-A level. He now looks like a pitcher with little to nothing left to prove in the minors, and one that needs to begin to learn how to pitch at the MLB level.
After another strong start on Friday night Keller now owns a 3.56 ERA and a 3.61 FIP in 19 Triple-A starts this season. In his 103 2/3 innings of work he’s allowed nine home runs (0.78 HR/9) to go with a 8.0% walk rate, 28.2% strikeout rate, and he’s limited opposing batters to a .239 batting average.
Since returning to the minors in mid-June, Keller’s pitch selection has changed as well. He has started to throw his curveball, which is his best pitch, and his slider, a pitch he’s working on and is developing into a plus pitch, more than he was beforehand. This is a key for Keller to be able to reach his full potential at the MLB level.
Entering play on Saturday Keller’s 3.56 ERA was the second lowest in the International League, while his 123 strikeouts lead the league. Once again, Keller looks like a pitcher with nothing left to prove in the minor leagues.
General manager Neal Huntington has stated the team plans to roll with a six man starting rotation in August. This should easily clear the way for a spot in the rotation for Keller. Even if they stuck to a five man rotation, it would not be difficult to make a spot for Keller.
Right-handed pitcher Dario Agrazal initially provided the Pirate rotation with a shot in the arm. However, due to an inability to miss bats and generate swings and misses his success was not sustainable long term. Well, this has caught up to Agrazal.
After struggling in his last two starts, Agrazal now owns a 6.35 FIP in 37 innings pitched in his seven starts. His 6.5% walk rate his strong, but his 11.6% strikeout rate and 1.95 HR/9 are not. This is why his FIP is almost double his ERA (3.65).
Agrazal’s long term future is not in the rotation. He is better suited to be a bullpen swing man that can pitch in multiple roles out of the ‘pen, while also providing the team with the occasional spot start. Due to this, there is not reason for him to continue to make starts over Keller. If the Pirates do not go to a six man rotation that is.
Another factor is that the Pirates need Keller to start to emerge as an anchor of the Pirate starting rotation. With Jameson Taillon set to miss at least the first month or two of the 2020 season, the Pirate rotation is without a staff anchor. Keller has all the tools needed to be this front line arm, it is time for him to be given the opportunity to start to evolve into that pitcher at the MLB level. With the team out of contention, there is zero reason for Keller to be guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation during the final two months of this season in an effort to help learn and grow at the MLB level.
If Keller’s next start is not at the MLB level, Pirate fans have every right to be upset.