April 20, 2024

Pirates, RHP Mitch Keller agree to 5-year extension, per source: What it means for Pittsburgh’s rotation

The Pittsburgh Pirates and right-handed starter Mitch Keller have agreed to a five-year extension, a league source confirmed Thursday. The deal is worth $77 million, according to multiple reports.

Keller, 27, is coming off a season in which he posted a 4.21 ERA with 210 strikeouts through 194 1/3 innings (32 starts). A second-round draft pick in 2014 out of high school, he was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball as he ascended the Pirates farm system in the late 2010s.

But as recently as two Opening Days ago, no one would have believed he’d be signing this contract with the Pirates. Keller was wildly inconsistent in the majors. He had a 7.13 ERA as a rookie; allowed twice as many walks as hits in the shortened 2020 season; lacked both stuff and velocity as he posted a 6.17 ERA in 2021 and had a 6.61 ERA in his first seven starts of 2022.

You can rarely point precisely to the moment everything clicked.

However, with Keller, we can. During the offseason in 2022, he worked at Tread Athletics to regain velocity, combined with an expansion of his pitch repertoire. Since then, Keller has made himself a No. 1 starter — a 3.83 ERA in 46 starts and an All-Star Game appearance. Keller at times can still confound. As the Pirates faded from contention last summer, he struggled, too. He had starts of eight, six, eight, eight and seven earned runs in the second half, negating some of his statistical progress.

What does this mean for the rotation?

The Pirates have exceedingly little certainty in their current rotation — Johan Oviedo is out for the season, and Martín Pérez and Marco Gonzales are not considered long-term contributors — so keeping Keller long term is important. He’ll anchor the rotation as the Pirates’ top prospects approach the majors.

Paul Skenes, the No. 1 pick in last year’s MLB Draft, should debut at some point this season. The Athletic’s Keith Law recently ranked Skenes as the top pitcher and No. 10 prospect in the game. Also in the upper level of the minors: Jared Jones (ranked No. 39), Bubba Chandler (No. 48), Anthony Solometo, Thomas Harrington, Mike Burrows and Braxton Ashcraft.

What does this say about what’s next for the Pirates?

As laid out in The Athletic’s story on the state of the Pirates on Thursday, the club has been spinning its wheels since reaching the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. They do not spend lavishly in free agency, and they have not given out a multi-year deal since 2017. They have filled out this current roster with seven veteran free agents, all of whom are on one-year deals, in an attempt to be competitive in the NL Central this season. Longer term, though, the Keller extension is their most impactful move of the offseason.

Extensions are where the Pirates prefer to spend their money. One former front-office employee quoted in Thursday’s story confessed that even if their budget was expanded by ownership, the front office would rather spend the extra cash on extensions. Better bang for the buck. Yet there was a long stretch in the late 2010s when they extended no one.

Now, they’ve locked up third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, outfielder Bryan Reynolds and Keller as core pieces. Next, they could consider Oneil Cruz, the young shortstop who missed most of last season with an injury. Or maybe they wait for signs of a breakout from Jack Suwinski or Henry Davis and swoop in with an extension offer. Or they could attempt to sign second baseman Termarr Johnson before he debuts, like the Brewers did this winter with top prospect Jackson Chourio. The farther the player is from free agency, the more likely he is to accept the financial security of a long-term deal — and the higher the potential value for the club.

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(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)