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Is it time to be concerned about Mitch Keller?

The youngster has struggled. Should we be worried?

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Essentially, we’re two-thirds of the way through spring training, as the Pirates played their 19th game Sunday, a 9-4 win over the Boston Red Sox. So far, the Bucs have won nine of those 19, and they have nine games remaining.

As we’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to discern exactly what, if anything, you can take from spring training competition. Adam Frazier, while a solid player, is not going to hit .577 with a 1.477 OPS this season, despite doing so in his first 26 spring training at-bats. And let’s hope that Brian Goodwin – if he makes the team – can do better than .167 when the real bell rings April 1.

But generally speaking, I don’t dislike what I’ve seen from the Pirates this spring. Frazier figures to be an asset, at least as long as he’s here, and if he puts together a good start, he might fetch something in return in the way of a prospect. Both Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds look to be ready to rebound from sub-par 2020 showings, and Ke’Bryan Hayes certainly appears to be the real deal at third base. Anthony Alford has shown that he’s at least worth getting a shot in center field, and Todd Frazier should lend some stability even if his numbers aren’t impressive.

On the mound, Chad Kuhl has performed OK, but the rest of the rotation has looked shaky, and Steven Brault’s departure from his most recent due to a lat issue is a bit concerning.

But perhaps the biggest concern, at least for me, has been the performance of starter Mitch Keller. The right-hander, who turns 25 on April 4, has long been viewed as the Bucs’ top pitching prospect, a front-of-the-rotation guy capable of putting up impressive numbers.

But so far in his brief Pirates career, Keller has been a disappointment.

The Pirates’ second-round pick in the 2014 draft, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native had an impressive journey through the minor leagues, including a 3.14 ERA in 15 starts at high-A Bradenton in 2017 and a 2.72 ERA in 14 starts at Altoona the following year. But since reaching the big leagues in 2019, Keller has found nothing but trouble.

In 11 starts that season with Pittsburgh, Keller posted a 7.13 ERA in 48 innings, yielding 72 hits and 38 earned runs, walking 16 and striking out 65. Keller also made 19 starts with Triple-A Indianapolis that year, starting the season there and then spending the middle portion of the season there as well before being recalled to Pittsburgh in mid-August. Overall that season with the Indians, Keller went 7-5 with a 3.56 ERA in 19 starts.

It’s difficult to evaluate Keller’s 2020 season, as he missed significant time with an oblique injury and made just five appearances totaling 21 2/3 innings. He did come back at the end of the season and look good, totaling 14 innings in three appearances, during which he allowed nine hits and seven earned runs while striking out 13. But he also walked 14 during that stretch.

Keller appears to be healthy, but his performance in spring training so far does not exactly leave one feeling supremely confident that he could one day be the ace of anyone’s staff. In three outings totaling five innings, Keller has yielded 15 hits and 12 runs for an unsightly 21.60 ERA. Yes, I realize it’s spring training and numbers don’t matter, but it does make one wonder. Has been over-hyped all these years? Is he another in the latest line of pitchers unable to reach their potential under the Pirates’ tutelage? Or is he just going through the normal growing pains that many pitchers have had to go through before finding his footing?

If Ray Searage and the old regime were still in place, I would definitely have my doubts as to whether Keller could ever turn out to be a positive contributor – if not a top-of-the-rotation guy, then a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter. But given all that’s happened in the past year, with Oscar Marin coming aboard with the new Ben Cherington-Derek Shelton regime, and last year getting upended by COVID-19, I’ll give Keller the benefit of the doubt in 2021. My goal is to see him stay healthy and make more than two dozen starts. If he can do that, we should know by the end of the season if he is indeed someone with true potential, regardless of whether his numbers are impressive or not.

Today, Keller is scheduled to make his fourth spring training appearance, in a 1:05 p.m. game against the Twins. It’d sure make me relax a bit to see him throw three innings of decent ball.

DRAFT NOTES – Vanderbilt’s two pitching studs – Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter – continued to put up impressive numbers over the weekend in their respective bids to establish themselves as the No. 1 overall pick in the July draft. Rocker went eight innings and gave up two earned runs – the first runs he’s surrendered all year – in a 3-2 win over South Carolina Friday. Rocker struck out 14 and gave up three hits while walking two. The big right-hander threw 116 pitches, 82 of which went for strikes. Leiter, meanwhile, did him one better, as he no-hit the Gamecocks the next day in a 5-0 win. Leiter threw 124 pitches, 81 for strikes, and struck out a career-high 16 batters while walking one. I’m not wild about seeing my potential future ace throw 116 or 124 pitches at this point in the season, particularly coming off a pandemic-shortened season in 2020, but that’s just me.