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Kevin Gorman: Kevin Gorman: Pirates can't afford for Mitch Keller to be a bust

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - 5/27/2019

May 27-- May 27--The Pittsburgh Pirates want you to believe there was a developmental delay that prevented them from promoting top prospect Mitch Keller to the major leagues until Memorial Day.

The Pirates want you to believe that they were waiting for the 23-year-old right-hander to refine a cutter-slider at Triple-A Indianapolis to add to his repertoire that includes a high-velocity fastball, a "hammer" curveball and a changeup.

Truth is, the Pirates can't afford for Keller to be a bust.

That's why he's making his major-league debut in the second game of a doubleheader Monday night at Cincinnati instead of starting against Colorado last week when the Pirates returned to PNC Park riding a three-game winning streak. But they missed an opportunity to create a buzz in the ballpark with Keller.

"We think that the worst thing that can happen to a young player is to be rushed," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday. "If you look at history, it's littered with young players that were rushed and, 'Whatever happened to ... '

"That's where we work to be conservative with our guys, put them in a position to be successful and we don't ever want to look back five years later and realize we crushed a young man's confidence because we rushed him."

That's one way of owning up to Tyler Glasnow bombing with the Bucs before blossoming in Tampa Bay. If the Pirates appear gun-shy with Keller, it's because that remains an open wound.

If the Pirates have a history of practicing patience with their top pitching prospects, it's because of how much they have invested in their drafting and development and how they refuse to pay for top-of-rotation starting pitching on the free-agent market.

Their unwillingness to pursue starter Dallas Keuchel with Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams on the injured list is proof. It's why the Pirates can't afford for their prized prospects to fail to live up to expectations. It's their only option.

But their pitching staff didn't leave much choice. Neither Nick Kingham nor Steven Brault has shown consistency as a starter, and the experiment of using Montana DuRapau and Michael Feliz as openers blew up in their face. That placed an enormous amount of pressure on Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Jordan Lyles in their respective starts.

This is how comical the Pirates pitching was in the six-run sixth inning by the Dodgers on Sunday: DuRapau walked Corey Seager to load the bases, then hit Enrique Hernandez with a pitch only to be replaced by Dovydas Neverauskas, who promptly hit No. 8 hitter Austin Barnes with his first pitch.

Keller can't get here fast enough.

In a perfect world, as Huntington said repeatedly, the Pirates could have allowed their No. 1 prospect and one ranked No. 21 by MLB Pipeline more time to perfect his newest pitch. But Keller is as close to being ready as any pitcher in the organization, going 5-0 with a 3.45 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in nine starts this season, and is regarded as an elite talent.

Rookie Davis, called up Saturday to bolster the bullpen, described Keller as "explosive." That was evident in Keller's final outing at Indianapolis, when he struck out six with one walk while allowing six hits and one run on 95 pitches over seven innings Tuesday in a 4-3 victory at Louisville.

"He's a competitor. He attacks guys. Any time you're throwing 98, that's a pretty easy thing to do, but he's really putting together a great season down there and I expect nothing less than that here," said Davis, who started six games for the Reds in 2017. "I know he's ready. Just from what I saw, fastball command was really good down there. The development of that slider-cutter hybrid was huge."

Taillon added his own slider last season, a move that required confidence and conviction. He did so by trial and error, knowing hitters would provide feedback to tell him whether it was ready or required additional adjustments. That was his advice to Keller in spring training, as he was tinkering with his own pitch.

"You can have two pitches, but they've got to both be on," Taillon said. "You've got to be throwing that curveball for a strike and getting them to chase, getting outs with it. You have to have that third pitch to at least give them a game plan to go over in certain counts, having them looking for something so they can't sit dead on a heater and wait on a breaking ball. It's vital. The slider gave me a safety net so I can work on my changeup, but there's not as much pressure on that pitch."

Huntington talked about how the cutter-slider gives Keller another "action pitch" that he can throw for consistent strikes, especially when behind in the count, as well as it being tougher to recognize than the curveball coming out of his hand.

"The added slider, and the fact that he's locked that in, gives us comfort that he's got an additional weapon," Huntington said. "To bring him up May 5, as he was adding the slider, just wouldn't have been fair to him. He now has confidence. He now can shape it more consistently. He now has a better feel of how and when to use it. Now, we have to go see how he evolves that in the major leagues."

The best-case scenario for the Pirates would be for Keller to show he's ready to pitch in the majors and remain in the rotation. That would solve at least one major problem for the Pirates, without creating concerns about their top prospect.

The Pirates need Keller to be special.

So, truth be told, their delay wasn't so much in his development of another pitch but making sure that his major-league call up wouldn't require an emergency evacuation plan.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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