2022 Is a Make or Break Season for Mitch Keller

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

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Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this article, I just want to mention how excited I am to be discussing the Buccos again! What a long 99 days of lockout that was as we rode the roller coaster of emotions before an agreement was finally reached last Thursday.

I’m surely excited to discuss the Pirates on this website whether they win 100 games or lose 100 games.

This upcoming season for the Pirates has a fairly bleak outlook. They haven’t improved much since last season outside of a few marginal signings in free agency. It’s a roster full of a lot of guys with things to prove and a few youngsters that may officially graduate to the MLB.  They did add some depth today with the signings of Daniel Vogelbach and Heath Hembree.

Sure, Ke’Bryan Hayes will be out to prove he’s an elite third baseman if he stays healthy and Bryan Reynolds wants to build off of the success he had in 2021 when he carried the Pirates’ offense for the majority of the season. Also, Yoshi Tsutsugo wants to prove his couple weeks of power last season weren't just an anomaly. He needs to show more consistency if he wants to get paid this offseason.

While just about every player on the Pirates roster will have something to prove in 2022, I’m not sure there’s a player on the roster who has more to prove than Mitch Keller.  Keller enters this season as one of the few pitchers likely guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. The Pirates don’t have any other choice with him.

Keller, 25, is heading into his fourth season in Pittsburgh and possibly his final one if things don’t go according to plan for the former top prospect.  Since his debut in 2019, Keller’s lofty expectations haven’t been met. He has a 7-17 record with a 6.02 ERA over 39 career starts. Those are obviously very uninspiring numbers.

The Pirates have a plethora of pitching prospects climbing the minor league ranks. In fact, they have enough starting pitch depth to cover two rotations, if they all pan out. None of the names stand out as stars, but they have at least eight or nine guys on the 40-man right now that could start at least a game for the Pirates this season.

Those names include the following: Keller, Roansy Contreras, Jose Quintana, JT Brubaker, Bryse Wilson, Max Kranick, Dillon Peters, and Miguel Yajure.

That doesn’t include any potential small free agent signings the Pirates make prior to the start of the season.  So Keller’s spot beyond the first half of the season is by no means safe at all. However, the Pirates have invested a lot into Keller, trying to make him the star pitcher that his prospect ranking suggested he could be.

The 25-year old absolutely has shown flashes of being at least a mid-to-top of the rotation starter. Over his 100.2 innings last season, Keller had his lowest HR/9 of his career allowing 0.9 HR/9. He reached the 100 inning mark, albeit barely, for the first time in his career last year.

Keller made a career-high 23 in 2021 while also being demoted mid-season to try and find his game. Keller’s results were a bit better in September, save for one outing where he allowed six earned runs. He looked a bit more confident on the mound, something he hasn’t been able to portray much in his early career when on a big league field.

All of this adds up to a potential big season for Mitch Keller. Ben Cherington did not draft him and has plenty of his own prospects barking up the ladder to get some time. If Keller comes out flat, there’s a very real possibility the Pirates could look for a taker who would be interested in trying to resurrect Keller’s once very promising career.

In an ideal world, something clicked over the offseason for Keller and the Pirates at least have a reliable number two or three starter that can eat some innings and keep a bullpen, that will likely get a lot of work this season, fresh.

In the back of a lot of Pirate fans' minds, they don’t want to part with Keller simply because of the situation being eerily similar to that of Tyler Glasnow. A former top prospect who couldn’t figure it out in Pittsburgh finds himself somewhere else just to become one of baseball's top starters.  That is not something Pirates fans want to watch repeat.

For the sake of Pirates fans and their sanity, let’s hope that Keller becomes a totally different player in 2022. No one even really expects the top end guy that Keller was once projected to be. All we really want is to see improvement so that we know Mitch Keller can pitch, and be trusted, at the major league level.