CEDAR RAPIDS — One of baseball’s top minor league pitching prospects got demoted last week.
Mitch Keller was sent from Triple-A Indianapolis all the way down to high-Class A Bradenton in the Florida State League. That’s quite a fall.
“It’s different being back in the Florida State League,” the former Cedar Rapids Xavier prep said Wednesday afternoon. “It is really hot here, and I’m not used to that, for one. No fans (go to games). You don’t really think about it until you’ve been somewhere else, and you come back here. It’s definitely different, a grind every season down here.”
OK, OK, now it’s time for the full story here. This really wasn’t a demotion.
Keller remains a highly-valued guy by the Pittsburgh Pirates, someone who could make his major league debut sometime by season’s end. The reason for his trip to Bradenton was to stay sharp so he could throw in Sunday’s MLB Futures Game.
That game, held in conjunction with Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game, features 50 of baseball’s best prospects. It’s at Washington’s Nationals Park, with a 3 p.m. start (MLB Network).
Former Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder Alex Kirilloff and pitcher Lewis Thorpe also are participating. Kirilloff spent the first half of this season with the Kernels before being moved up to high-A.
“It’s crazy thinking about the Futures Game. I am really excited about it,” Keller said. “We had our Triple-A all-star break this week, and (the Pirates) didn’t want me to have (all) those days off from throwing. They wanted to keep me going, to get lined up for the 15th ... Been a hectic week of travel and all that.”
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Keller got in four innings of work for Bradenton in his start Tuesday, allowing just a run. He earned his way to Triple-A by excelling in 14 starts for Double-A Altoona.
The 22-year-old right-hander posted a 9-2 record, 2.72 earned-run average and .208 opponent batting average for the Curve. His best start was his last one June 25, when he threw eight one-hit, shutout innings against Harrisburg.
His two Triple-A starts have run the gamut. He was touched for 10 hits and eight runs over 2 2/3 innings June 30 at Columbus, then regrouped to strike out 10 in six innings against Louisville in his next turn.
A four-run third inning was most of the damage against him in that game and gave him a loss.
“Triple-A is just a different animal,” Keller said. “My first start, I kind of got punched in my mouth a little bit. I don’t think I went out there with an ‘eff you’ mentality. I think I was feeling things out too much, trying to be perfect instead of just getting right after it. My second start, it was the complete opposite. Just three or four pitches hurt me, really, in the third inning. Take those away, and it was one of the better outings I’ve had all year.”
Keller said he feels this season as a whole has provided him tons of value. The learning experiences never stop, particularly when you get to the higher levels of the minor leagues.
“I’ve definitely had some rough starts, rough patches along the way,” he said. “This has all been a learning experience. I’ve never really gotten punched in the mouth like I have, so that’s good. It’s a very humbling game, so it’s good to have that happen and kind of go back to what was working. Reset and figure things out. It’s been really good for me this year to kind of figure things out and know what I need to do to get to that next level.”
He was assigned to the Arizona Fall League last fall specifically to work on his changeup, and he said that pitch has improved greatly. He feels as comfortable throwing it as he does his mid-90s fastball and breaking ball.
Keller won’t get a chance to stick around Washington and watch the MLB All-Star Game, taking an early flight Monday to rejoin Indianapolis for its series at Gwinnett (Ga.). If he stays healthy, there’s not much doubt he’ll eventually be back on the Nationals Park mound at some point, this time as a full-fledged big leaguer.
Could that be by the end of this season?
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“I don’t know. It’s definitely the end goal,” he said. “I want to have that callup. But I’m just trying to keep working. Obviously my first start in Triple-A, that’s not going to do it. I’ve really got to pull back and focus on what I’m doing in Triple-A. The time will come. If I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, it will come. You just try not to worry about when it’s going to be.”
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