Mitch Keller is the undisputed ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s a sentence hardly anyone thought they’d utter just a year ago, but Keller has flipped the script over the past 12 months to become a dependable starting pitcher.
The 27-year-old Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native owns a 3.41 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 87 innings spanning 14 starts. He ranks 11th in the National League in ERA, second in strikeouts, and tied for first in wins (8-2).
Keller joined 93.7 The Fan earlier this season while in the midst of his superb May and mentioned that he and the Pirates had begun contract extension talks. He finished with an even 3.00 ERA in six May appearances after a 2.90 mark in April. He carried the Bucs through their sluggish month of the year and played stopper on numerous occasions.
The Pirates maintain control of Keller for two additional seasons after 2023 through arbitration. He is making $2.44 million after agreeing with the club prior to the regular season.
Extension discussions have run rampant for the Pirates surrounding their top young talent after locking up Ke’Bryan Hayes to the highest contract in franchise history last year. Bryan Reynolds shattered it with a $106 million deal of his own just over a year later, paving the way for the Pirates to silence the skeptics.
All is not forgotten, yet much has been made right, but further growth and sustainability are the only way to a better future on the North Shore. Signing Keller does just that. What are some comparable contracts to what Keller could earn? Free agent deals tend to be lofty, lack a team-friendly approach and create a bidding war between clubs.
The Pirates are only bidding against themselves and, well, Keller. The San Francisco Giants locked up emerging starter Logan Webb (26) to a five-year, $90 million deal with an average annual value of $18 million per season. He is the 15th-highest-paid pitcher in baseball. There’s little to believe the Pirates would offer a deal in that realm and AAV for a pitcher who was relegated to the bullpen and thought to be lost on the mound in some regards just 13 months ago.
How about a team-friendly deal like the contract between the Miami Marlins and 2022 Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara? Prior to winning the prestigious award, Alcantara agreed to terms on a five-year, $56 million deal with a $11.2 AAV and included a $1.5 million signing bonus.
27-year-old Pablo Lopez recently signed a four-year, $73.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins that will begin in 2024 and take him through the 2027 campaign. Lopez received a $1 million signing bonus and issued over an $18 million AAV per year. He will make $8 million in what would have been his final year of arbitration before earning $21 million per season, buying out three years of free agency.
The goal should be to sign Keller to a deal similar to Alcantara or Christian Javier (five-year, $64 million). A five-year contract worth $65 million overall makes sense, plus adding a team option for an additional sixth season. Keller can earn $6 million in what would have been his second arbitration year and rise to $9 million in 2025. He would earn upwards of $16 million per season for the next three years, and some money could be shuffled around to frontload the contract or spread it out more evenly. Keller is currently in the running for the Cy Young and sits comfortably in consideration as a top-five pitcher in 2023.
Locking up Keller - and others like Oneil Cruz - needs to be a continued priority for Ben Cherington to accomplish. It seems Keller is willing to reach an agreement and optimistic about an extension. The path will likely be paved in the offseason, leading to a potential third year in a row with a significant extension to bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh.