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What can we expect from Mitch Keller in 2022?

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Despite his struggles, the Pirates can’t afford to give up on him

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to know what to make of Mitch Keller.

The knee-jerk response might be: not much. The one-time top prospect came to the big leagues with a bushel full of hype; Baseball America ranked him as the club’s No. 1 prospect for three straight seasons – 2018 through 2020 – after slotting him in at No. 2 in 2017. The same publication tabbed Keller as the No. 12 prospect overall in 2018, up 10 spots from the previous season.

But heading into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2022 season, it’s hard to be all that enthused about Keller, at least based on his recent performances. Those close to Keller, though, indicated this week that the right-hander is working to modify his delivery, and those changes seem to be working. A Twitter post authored by Keller’s training group noted that Keller was “casually cruising 93-96,” his curveball was playing well off the fastball and his slider and change both looked like “plus” pitches.

Given the lockout, any information is appreciated by baseball fans who are starved for news. But indoor bullpen sessions in mid-January are miles away from a big-league mound in the heat of the summer, so the mystery that is Mitch Keller is a long way from being solved.

Still, it’s intriguing to dream on Keller, given the high expectations he brought with him while working his way through the Minor Leagues. Those expectations seemed warranted; Keller was a highly regarded high school player and ranked as the No. 76 prospect heading into the 2014 draft. He was already sitting in the 90-92 mph range, occasionally reaching 95, and his curveball and change had the potential to be at least average offerings. Baseball America described his delivery as “easy” and anticipated the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder to have average control.

Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ General Manager at the time, made Keller the club’s second-round draft pick that year, choosing him 64th overall. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native was committed to North Carolina but instead signed for a $1 million bonus and began his pro career in what was then known as the Gulf Coast League (Rookie). There, he did nothing to tarnish his amateur reputation, as he posted a 1.98 ERA in 27 1/3 innings, giving up 19 hits and 13 walks while striking out 29.

He continued to shine as he climbed his way up the system one rung at a time. By 2017, after a strong start at what was then High-A Bradenton, he had reached Double-A Altoona, where he did well, and finished that year with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League.

Keller started the 2018 campaign back in Altoona, where he continued his mastery of Double-A hitters by going 9-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 86 innings over 14 starts. At that point, the Pirates moved him to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he ran into problems for the first time in his professional career. He made 10 starts and for the first time since his injury-shortened 2015 season, he gave up more hits than innings pitched – 59 in 52 1/3 innings. He finished with a 4.82 ERA and struck out 57 hitters while walking 22.

Few alarm bells went off, however, as Keller – at 22 — was relatively young for his level. The 2019 season began with Keller back at Indianapolis, where he went 5-0 with a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings over nine starts with 56 strikeouts and 20 walks. That led to his recall to the big leagues for a spot-start against the Cincinnati Reds on May 27. It did not go well; in his very first inning he faced 11 hitters, one of whom – Jose Iglesias – touched him for a grand slam. Keller made it through four innings, giving up six earned runs on seven hits, striking out seven and walking two.

Keller returned to Indianapolis and after two starts there, he made it back to Pittsburgh, where he made his next two starts and was touched for eight earned runs and 14 hits in eight innings. Keller was sent back to Indy and started eight more times, going 2-4 with a 4.14 ERA, striking out 49 and giving up 10 walks and 43 hits in 45 2/3 innings. He closed out the 2019 campaign by making eight more starts with the Pirates and going 1-4 with a 6.00 ERA. In 36 innings, Keller struck out 50 and walked 10 while giving up 51 hits.

Keller appeared in just five games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season but gave fans a reason to be optimistic, as he went 1-1 with a 2.91 ERA, allowing just nine hits and striking out 16 batters in 21 2/3 innings. However, he also walked 18 – an average of 6.6 per nine innings.

That optimism evaporated for many in 2021; Keller went 3-7 with a 7.04 ERA in 12 outings to start the season, yielding 56 hits and 29 walks while striking out 51 in 47 1/3 innings. Manager Derek Shelton and GM Ben Cherington had seen enough and sent Keller back to Indianapolis in mid-June after a short stint on the injured list. In eight appearances – six as a starter – Keller went 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA, and the Pirates recalled him to Pittsburgh at the end of July.

He pitched in 11 games the rest of the way, and things did not get much better; his ERA during that 53 1/3-inning stretch was 5.40 and he gave up 75 hits and 20 walks while striking out 41. Opposing hitters raked at a .350 clip.

So where does that leave Keller heading into 2022? Well, given his big league track level, Keller no longer should be saddled with major expectations. But maybe that’s just what he needs – to fly under the radar a bit.

Despite having a negative WAR, it’s far too early to give up on Keller, as he’ll only be 26 years old on April 4. Providing he’s healthy, the Pirates need to give him the ball every fifth day – unless he repeats his 7.04 ERA over a long stretch of games. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to scuffle in the early stages of their careers before finally finding themselves in their mid-20s.

Given their roster composition, the Bucs have nothing whatsoever to lose in allowing Keller to work on his craft in a relatively pressure-free environment. Maybe the light will go on for him, and the Pirates will find a respectable starter and an innings-eater while they wait for the first group of bona fide pitching prospects to arrive from the Minor Leagues.