Williams: Don’t Be Surprised By Mitch Keller’s Promotion to Altoona

On August 21st, 2012, I made a special trip up to Trenton to see the Altoona Curve in action. It’s rare that we will see a Pirates’ minor league affiliate play on the road, even now when we have extensive coverage of every team in the system. However, there was good reason to make the trip for this one game: top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon was set to make his debut at the Double-A level.

This weekend, Altoona will be in Trenton, and another top pitching prospect drafted out of the prep ranks could be making his Double-A debut. Sean McCool reported yesterday that Keller was being promoted to Altoona. His next start in Bradenton would have been Sunday on six days rest. That means he will either start Saturday or Sunday for Altoona in Trenton.

It’s almost a bit poetic in a way for Keller to be making his Double-A debut in the same stadium that Taillon made his debut. But Taillon isn’t the guy I think of when thinking about Keller’s quick promotion through the lower levels.

Taillon was a first round pick, and a relatively polished pitcher out of the prep ranks. He went to West Virginia during his first pro season, then split his second year between Bradenton and Altoona. He returned to Altoona for most of his third pro season, then moved to Indianapolis at the end of the year. He would have been on pace to make the majors the next year, but Tommy John and a hernia shut him down for about two years.

Keller was a different story starting out. He was a second round pick, given an over-slot bonus of $1 M to sign. He was impressive in our first views of him in the GCL that summer, hitting 94 MPH with ease, along with a nasty curveball, although with some command issues. He continued drawing rave reviews from scouts the following year in extended Spring Training. He spent the short-season in Bristol, and still showed command issues.

That offseason, Keller made a simple adjustment that led to much improved command, and propelled him up the prospect charts. He held his glove arm firm above his waist during his delivery, simplifying things and cutting out extra movement. This led to amazing results in West Virginia, and a rare late-season promotion to Bradenton.

The promotion to Bradenton was when I realized the Pirates were treating Keller different from all former prep pitchers that came before him. Taillon spent the entire year in West Virginia when he was at that level. Tyler Glasnow spent an entire year at the level. Nick Kingham spent an entire year at the level. Every former prep pitcher who went through Low-A spent an entire year there before moving up.

That wasn’t a coincidence. The Pirates like their prep pitchers spending an entire year in Low-A. It gets them used to pitching on a five-day schedule for an entire season, and allows them the flexibility to cut down on innings later in the season if needed. The West Virginia pitching staff is typically built to allow for shorter outings throughout the season, with a lot of long-relief options. Bradenton doesn’t typically have that, so promoting a four inning starter in August would blow up the bullpen at the level.

Taillon legitimately had things to work on, and the Pirates were monitoring his innings at a time when they were much more strict about that in the low levels. Glasnow had video game numbers, but also had things to work on. Kingham and other prep pitchers like Clay Holmes made improvements in the second half, but still stayed at the level.

Keller not only moved up, but wasn’t restricted at the end of the year. In his final start in the Florida State League playoffs, he pitched eight innings, which was unheard of for an A-ball pitcher in the past.

I knew heading into this year that Keller would continue getting an aggressive push, and that he would finish the year in Altoona. Part of that was due to the aggressive push he received last year, which was unlike any other pitcher before him. It was also the feeling I was getting from inside the organization.

When I think of how Keller is being moved through the system, it’s a bit more like Gerrit Cole than any prep pitcher. That is to say that he’s being moved more like he’s a polished high first round pick out of the college ranks, rather than a prep pitcher to be conservative with.

That’s not a bad idea. I’ve said this a few times in the last year, but I’ll say it again — Keller is one of the most advanced pitchers the Pirates have had in A-ball. He’s got much better fastball command than Glasnow had at the level. He’s not as hitable as Taillon was at the level, or even Cole. Both of those pitchers elevated their fastballs, and needed work to get the pitch down and move it around. Keller has much better fastball command, with the ability to move it all around the zone.

This doesn’t mean that Keller will continue his development to be the best of that group. Obviously that is possible, but dependent on future progress.

What it does mean is that Keller is deserving of this aggressive push that no one else has really received because he’s more advanced for his current level than anyone the Pirates have had in the past.

Keller will now get about a month in Double-A, and maybe more than that if Altoona makes the playoffs. He would also be a prime candidate for the Arizona Fall League, since he missed some innings this year with back tightness. Assuming he handles the current level as well as he handled his time in Bradenton, I could see him continuing his quick progression through the minors, having a shot at Indianapolis early in 2018, with a chance to reach the majors by the end of the season at this pace.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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candyfan

Regarding DK and his constant rant about Pirates having a lackluster farm system – I did some research on Farm System Ratings from various “expert” sources, about six or seven in all. Results? Pirates Farm System is consistently ranked in top 20% or higher by those who watch the minor leagues.

Secondly, look at the current team standings of the Pirates minor league teams: Indy and Altoona near the top or on top all year; Bradenton playing championship baseball; West Virginia Power playing better than predicted and the new kids at Morgantown WV one of the better teams in the 14 team NY Penn-Short Season Class A league.

Furthermore, the Pirates are doing most of this with young talent, not with tired, old, retreads, as was the case under Littlefield. DK is ignoring such facts in attempting to sabotage Huntington on the job.

rich

Matt Gatka had a good mini series of articles “proving” that the Pirates are one of the worst drafting teams in baseball over NH’s tenure.

There was one issue though – it was a point in time analysis and many players that the Pirates have drafted early (Kingham, Holmes, Glasnow, etc.) are still in the minors. While it is true that NH is one of the worst in achieving WAR quickly in the majors, the final analysis will have to wait until later.

I would say the drafting analysis should be based not on how quickly MLB WAR is achieved (like Matt’s article) or career WAR is achieved (because what does it matter if they have some Barry Bonds player who goes on to amass WAR as a free agent). Instead, i would base it on controllable WAR for the first 6+ years (mind you it doesn’t have to be with the Pirates if NH chooses to trade them).

Y2JGQ2

You can’t compare littlefield to NH. NH’s job is not to do better than littlefield, its to be in the top 20% of his peers. He isn’t

mam995

The man does well enough. Look at all of these bad contracts that all of these teams have to eat. They mess up all the time. They get a pass. Look at that bad David Price contract. Look at that bad Jacob Ellsbury contract. Look at that just terrible Jason Heyward contract all done by the so called “geniuses”. Yes, he missed on Tony Sanchez and the Cubs missed on Hayden Simpson…and Houston missed on Mark Appel. The big teams just buy out their mistakes. Overstated, but the small markets cannot. They had better be right. The small teams have to get lucky to make the playoffs which are basically a crap shoot.

So what is the point of these polemics? Those “upper 20%” do not manage under the economic restrictions as this franchise does and Kansas City got lucky (as do ALL playoff teams) and faced an over-achieving and “lucky” big market Mets team. Any of the top 3 teams in the NL Central would have beat KC. The fact is, baseball’s economics structure makes it impossible to play on a level playing field. That is simply the reality of fact. Just saying spend more money doesn’t negate that point. The Yankees, the Cubs, Boston and even most of the Dodgers staff is bought pitching. That is the most expensive component of winning baseball in the modern era.

Now this is a down year for Bucs for many reasons. But their pitching development in the major league rotation has been fascinating. Kuhl, a ninth round pick, looks like he’s going to be a good pitcher. That is why a lot of teams asked about him last off season. Williams a traded for 2nd round pick, shows great promise. Glasnow, a fifth round pick looks like he will add value to this franchise. This team is doing what they have to do given the inequities of the sport. And no, NH shouldn’t be fired and neither should Hurdle. When you analytically evaluate the conditions…I agree with their mission approach.

Y2JGQ2

The top 20% thing would be “doing his job well” not spending money, its complete opinion, but economics aside, he is not a top 20% negotiator, and that’s what really sets one GM apart from another. Negotiating and vision

candyfan

Tim, I made the same trip from Williamsport, Pa. to Trenton back in 2012 to see Taillon pitch that night. And on that night i watched a young kid pitch a good game with an overhead motion that he no longer uses. That old motion tended to elevate his fast ball coming out of the windup I guess? He dropped the over the head windup and his fast ball dropped with it. As I recall, he looked very good that night in Trenton NJ.

msgt70a

Any word on who is taking his place on the Bradenton roster?

Darkstone42

Too late. I already fainted with shock when it happened yesterday.

A little warning next time, please. Telling us after it happens doesn’t count.

EWS34

Tim, lots of talk about if GM NH should be extended or fired. DK has been preaching that drafting and development has not been good under NH. What is your take on the drafting and developing of the players? NH was a rookie GM. I expected him to make mistakes and learn as he went.

leowalter

I f you don’t think DK is THE expert on all things Pittsburgh sports, just ask him who is !

rjgrinde

NH is not a good GM Tim, I really hate to break it to you. He’s spent more time making the Pirates appear like a world class organization than making them one. The small market shit is getting old. That should not be a restriction for a good GM. I don’t know what you call Arizona, Colorado, Houston, Kansas City (who has won a championship recently if you don’t recall). Those teams are all set for the future and all I see for the Pirates is a mediocre, crumbling core. I blame it on so many damn Prep selections and misses and mid tier pick-ups that create the illusion of support. Bottom line is, it has been way too long for your claim to fame to be “having the 5th best aggregate record of any system in baseball.” That’s lovely but, where has that gotten the big squad? The team is a cheap imitation who would rather spend money on facilities than actual talent. Sure, bad luck has been involved but, one more year of uninspired, trash baseball will close the book on old NH or, at least it should. Angry Bucs fan signing off.

EWS34

Isn’t Houston one of the top 10 cities in the us?

Y2JGQ2

Arizona spent about a billion dollars a few years ago then had to completely shitcan the whole team aka marlins post championship……..Colorado hasn’t been good since larry walker……..are we really using these teams to aid your cause?

rjgrinde

Not the case anymore is it? All those teams would house the Pirates. Look, with all those mistakes Arizona turned out good. Maybe we should try it? You know, spending money.

Bill Harvey

You have written about the draft, yes, and you continually write about development, but that doesn’t mean the front office is particularly good at either.

Bill Harvey

It’s kind of a mixed bag if you want to my opinion. Their first round draft picks have largely been “meh” as a whole. However, their ability to find impact talent after the first round has been pretty good. I am just not sure if my opinion of their ability should be impacted more by the former or the latter. Overall, I guess I would say they are doing ok, but as I am sure even they would attest, in the Pittsburgh market, they need to be better more often.

Bill Harvey

Neither Cole nor Taillon is a star either. Appel was a swing and a miss, Meadows, the jury is still out. McGuire is looking like he will top out as a AAAA player at best. I understand not hitting on first round picks every year, or even every other year, but I would contend that this management team has not drafted a single star in 6 measurable drafts, and 3 that the jury can still be out on.

Bill Harvey

You only mention Cole and Taillon. I was talking about the first round overall. Outside of those 2, who both may be at the completely arbitrary 2.5 WAR number, Pedro Alvarez is the only first round pick that was ever anything more than serviceable. Or in other words, they were/are busts. Not just busts as in bad major leaguers, but busts as in bad minor league players.

To look at this another way, if you have a team with 8 position players and 5 SP that all end the season with 2.5 WAR, what would their record be? My guess, not good. A 2.5 WAR player is good, but that is not a difference maker.

rjgrinde

You sound like a freshman philosophy teacher. I think Hurdle / coaching staff have done an amazing job with the players they are given.

EWS34

Thanks Tim. I appreciate the insight and reply. I hope the minors bear more fruit going toward. I am concerned that replacing Mgmt could result in a step back for a year or two. What are the odds the Pirates could hire an experienced GM.

Mike U

I still think there needs to be a quantifiable examination of the drafts team by team, rd by rd. The 1st overall pick averages x amount of WAR, fWAR, whatever u please, over a 4 year period. How does Cole stack up? A typical draft gets you x amount of value from rounds 3-6, how have our drafts compared? Its a very inexact science to be sure, but the numbers are there to crunch and until there is a study on it, its hard to really tell whether NH drafts well or not.

bucswsbound

That work has been done and a link has been posted at bucsdugout and the PMB. Looks at WAR and takes into account draft position, trades and potential future value of MiLB prospects that are in Baseball America’s top 100. The results – even factoring in future production and trades of drafted players – are not positive for Huntington.

Y2JGQ2

But they aren’t awful either. average to slightly below average from what I’ve seen…..

John W

The 2013-15 success has very little to do with drafting and development. It has a lot to do with FA acquisitions and Cutch being in peak MVP form. DK probably very well might have a vendetta, but that doesn’t mean his opinion about drafting and development is wrong.

leowalter

If every homegrown player on that teams were developed under Littlefield is what you are saying, you are full of it.

rjgrinde

If That Walker for Niese trade didn’t show competency I don’t know what does.

EWS34

The problem with Walker is he was worth more to Pittsburgh (fans) than to any other team. It will be interesting to see what happens with him this off season. Where he ends up how long he signs for.

rjgrinde

Let’s go ahead and add Benoit to that list of slight of hand moves that NH likes to make to make it look like we added. Oh but he did us a favor by not tearing the team apart, what a condescending ass hole NH is.

LloydBeFree

With all due respect Mister Grinde, have you ever watched interviews with other GM’s, listened to audio of them or read of their quotes in print? LLOYD thinks not.
Neal Huntington does not appear to be near a condescending ass hole in this man’s opinion.

rjgrinde

You think you would start seeing some results. I really don’t feel like going through his laundry list of failures. I will mention J.A Happ however then the Walker deal would be moot

Y2JGQ2

That wasn’t a bad trade- it just ended up bad. The value was reasonable at the time

rjgrinde

No it wasn’t. I know no one is prescient but all signs pointed to a shit trade. Pirates had no leverage that’s why the trade was obvious shit. Probably should have traded Walker the year before huh?

Y2JGQ2

i disagree, but your opinion is valid.

Randy W

If they would have gotten Niese back to his form from the previous seasons (which isn’t a stretch considering their track record of reclamation successes), the trade would have been great for the Bucs. It didn’t happen. Every GM in the game makes moves that don’t pan out. Huntington’s good moves outweigh his bad ones .

Chuck C

Niese lost his fastball. I said when the trade went down that losing your FB is career ending.

John W

Drafting and development has not been good under NH. Pretty hard to argue otherwise and there is empirical data to support that claim. NH has been on the job almost a decade now.

emjayinTN

DK wanted to be THE Man for Pirates reporting and has not realized that dream.

*I am not surprised DK is beating that fire NH drum
*I am not surprised Mitch Keller was promoted to AA
*I am absolutely flabbergasted that Clint Hurdle has not been Fired or given the opportunity to resign. This team has had some unforeseen difficulties, but they have underperformed well beyond those difficulties.

Y2JGQ2

I’m not, and have never been a hurdle fan (beyond personally) he is a great guy. This team needs some drive and discipline.

EWS34

How much control does Hurdle really have? He’s the best manager they have had since Leyland. Although I did like McClendon.

Y2JGQ2

motivation, attention to detail, hustle, these are the things he is in charge of. If someone doesn’t run out a grounder, he should be sat. If he is injured and can’t run it out, he shouldn’t be in the lineup. These things are in Hurdle’s control

piraterican21

Emjayin, you have been consistent about firing Hurdle, why is that?

ScottinMass

Happy for him, but was hoping to see him pitch next week when I’ll be vacationing in Anna Maria Island and plan on going to Marauders games the 10th and 11th.

leefoo

Does he have the same rosy cheeks as Travis “LunchBox” Snider?

Mrs Foo thinks that is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo cute.

Y2JGQ2

where is travis now…..japan?

EWS34

Like if you looked. I did.

La Pirate

Do you think he has higher potential than Cole, Taillon and Glasnow? If so that would be very special if that potential is realized. It would be really great to see him with the big club sometime next year

Phil W

Hope he gets assigned to the AFL. Love vacationing in Scottsdale and it would be great to see him there!

David Lewis

So are you making another trip to Trenton??

David Lewis

Curve website is now showing “TBD” for Sunday, instead of McRae. Tell John to get his EZPass out…

David Lewis

And now it is in fact showing Keller starting Sunday.

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