One question that has continued to pop up at time throughout the season is the long-term status of Mitch Keller with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It wasn’t necessarily big news when Keller revealed early in the season that his representatives had very preliminary talks with the Pirates about a multi-year contract.
Yet the idea of the Pirates locking up Keller for the long haul has popped up from time to time. It’s certainly something interesting to speculate about.
However, I can’t help but wonder if the Pirates might at least have some reason for pause before approaching Keller again, talks that likely wouldn’t occur until late in the offseason or during the early portion of spring training.
The Pirates announced Thursday that Keller will not make what was scheduled to be his last start of the year on Sunday against the contending Miami Marlins at PNC Park in the season finale.
Now, it isn’t anything to necessarily panic about. Keller has made 32 starts and pitched 194.1 innings, serving as the clear workhorse of a starting rotation with too many colts who aren’t ready to handle a heavy load.
Yet it still seems to raise at least a tiny red flag. The news of Keller’s shutdown comes after he left a brilliant start Tuesday night against the postseason-bound Phillies in Philadelphia.
Keller had a no-hitter through five innings but began shaking his right arm after throwing his first pitch of the sixth. Manager Derek Shelton and the training staff visited the mound and Keller promptly gave up a home run to Brandon Marsh on the next pitch and then was removed from the game.
Maybe Keller’s arm discomfort was nothing more than the normal aches and pains that come from a season in which Keller logged 3,119 pitches, including at least 90 in each of his last 22 starts. Or maybe it is something more, as much as anyone would hope that isn’t the case.
Keller wasn’t the same pitcher in the second half after being selected to his first All-Star Game. Keller gave up a home run to the Tampa Bay Rays’ Yandy Diaz in the Midsummer Classic on July 11 in Seattle and that seemed to portend a rocky final 2.5 months of the season.
Following the All-Star break, Keller was 4-5 with a 5.59 ERA in 13 starts. His WHIP was 1.435 and opponents had an .828 OPS.
That came after a first half in which Keller had a 9-4 record with a 3.31 ERA in 19 starts to go with a 1.120 WHIP and .631 opponents’ OPS.
The Pirates have continually downplayed Keller’s second-half drop-off. However, the numbers don’t lie.
Keller will end the year with a 4.21 ERA, not much better than Johan Oviedo’s 4.31 mark. Certainly, no one is clamoring for the Pirates to lock in Oviedo with a long-term deal even though he is two years younger than the 27-year-old Keller.
To put Keller’s overall season into perspective, his ERA ranks just 36th among the 57 major-league pitchers who have worked at least 150 innings. That’s pedestrian, though his 210 strikeouts are impressive.
When asked earlier this month about the possibility of signing Keller to a long-term deal, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington was noncommittal.
“Been focused on the play on the field and supporting guys however we can,” Cherington said. “Mitch has had a really strong year. Proud of him. He’s worked hard to establish himself as a good major-league starter. Big part of what we’re doing. There will be times in the offseason where it does make sense to… there’s going to be a time naturally with him to talk about his contract. So, we’ll see what comes of that at the right time. But right now, just focused on supporting him on the field.”
The Pirates have reversed course over the last two years and showed they are willing to commit to long-term contracts with their players. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and left fielder Bryan Reynolds both were signed for eight years.
Keller cannot become a free agent until after the 2025 season. The Pirates have the luxury of time before needing to decide on a long-term contract – and should take advantage of it.