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The Brad Keller Conundrum
The big righty saw a promising career derail, but maybe he's back on track and that gives the Royals an interesting decision.
From 2018 to 2020, 50 pitchers threw at least 350 innings. Brad Keller was one of them and his 3.50 ERA ranked 18th out of that group. His ground ball rate was second-best. He didn’t strike batters out, but his barrel percentage was the fifth-best among those pitchers which showed that he was able to limit hard contact. But in 2021, he just couldn’t get it done. His walk rate that had improved quite a bit in the short 2020 season bounced way back up to the highest point of his career and even though he did strike more hitters out, it just wasn’t enough. He started well in 2022, but that didn’t last. By August, I was speculating that Keller was a non-tender candidate.
The Royals, of course, did tender him a contract. He ultimately agreed to a deal that was a fair amount less than the MLB Trade Rumors arbitration estimate and many were left wondering why. What we didn’t know was that Keller was spending his offseason doing work that he maybe hadn’t done before. I’ve written about his work at Driveline this winter, but you can read what Anne Rogers wrote about it a few weeks ago again if you’d like.
I have a pretty general rule of thumb with players. When they tell you who they are, believe them. Sometimes they just don’t make it very clear, so heading into 2022, I still had some hope for Keller because he told us a lot from 2018 to 2020 before faltering in 2021. But after another lost season, I felt like Keller was screaming at us who he is. But my rule that supersedes that rule is if a player makes a change, he’s worth paying attention to, at least for a little bit longer. And Keller very clearly has determined that he needed to make a change and I can appreciate that.
In his first start this spring, he had a great first inning and then faltered in his second inning. I wrote about this last week, but I spoke with a scout who was still glowing about what he saw from Keller. I kind of held back from saying this then, but as I think about it, it’s not that ridiculous with the clarification I got. The scout told me that his new pitches are “career changing.” From 1.2 innings of work, I felt like that was pretty hyperbolic, but he did clarify by saying that if he can maintain the shape he saw in the first, Keller is a legitimate big league pitcher, whether in the bullpen or the rotation. Okay, great. That’s a start.
So on Friday, Keller was tasked with facing an Oakland A’s team that had scored some runs this spring. The line doesn’t matter that much, but he went three innings, gave up a run on two hits and struck out three with one walk. I had a chance to chat with a different scout who saw him and he brought up this tweet from me:
He sent me a screenshot of the tweet and just said, “You should.”
Okay, I’m interested. So we got to chatting and basically the conversation was centered around two things. The first is basically a spring training trope at this point, but he thought Keller physically looked great. It’s hard to disagree if you’d had a chance to see him this spring. I don’t know if he’s lost weight or gained muscle or what, but he absolutely looks better to me. That doesn’t mean he’s sure to be better, but this goes back to the idea that he went to work this winter. When a player struggles and works to do something different and improve, I find myself interested.
The second was a breakdown of his pitching that I thought was very interesting. He said his fastball looked a whole lot more usable. His four-seamer wasn’t actually bad in terms of results, but this scout told me that he believes he can actually get swings and misses with it now. But nobody cares about the fastball when the talk is about the new curve and the sweeper. He didn’t get a real good look at the curve because I don’t think he threw a ton of it, but he said he couple of sweepers and basically echoed what I had heard before from another scout. He said that if Keller can control it enough, it’s a good enough pitch to, and yes, this is the exact quote, “change his career.”
That’s two people, completely independent of the other, who used the same terminology. Okay, I’m really interested. So if you’re wondering why I’m starting to buy back in, these are some of the reasons why. It’s not the results of spring as some responses to my tweet may have believed. It’s the fact that a player put in the work and has turned heads at this point. But what’s worth keeping track of, I believe, is what this means for the Royals moving forward as this season progresses.
We’re absolutely getting ahead of ourselves here, but let’s operate under the assumption that Keller can get back to being the guy with the 3.50 ERA in 360.1 innings in the first three years of his career, but this time with pitches that make it feel a little more sustainable. The Royals find themselves in an awkward spot because Keller is eligible for free agency following the 2023 season. What could he make on the open market? It’s tough to say, but Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray probably give us a pretty good idea of the ceiling. Gausman was very good in 2020 and then great in 2021 and landed a five-year deal for $110 million. Ray was brutal in 2020 after showing a mixed bag in 2019 and then was great in 2021 and landed a five-year deal for $115 million. So there’s probably our absolute top end to what Keller could be looking at in 2024 and beyond.
The odds of him becoming a Cy Young candidate (or winner in the case of Ray) seem pretty unlikely, so if he’s merely good and not great, maybe he’s in line for something like five years and $77 million like Eduardo Rodriguez got or maybe four years and $56 million like Jon Gray got. Again, this is assuming he has figured it out. The Royals need to make a decision if they believe it and they need to make that decision relatively fast. That’s pretty tough because what if he has a 3.96 ERA in 97.2 innings at the break. If that seems far-fetched, it’s exactly what happened for him last year. Now, he only had 67 strikeouts and had walked 32, so the context matters, but that’s a pretty quick turnaround to have to make a decision on a guy who has struggled.
And, to me, this is where the young starters come into play in a big way. If Keller has been more solid than good or great, but Daniel Lynch has struggled and Jonathan Heasley has struggled and Kris Bubic has struggled and, well, you get it, I’m not sure if the Royals can let Keller get away if he’s pitching well. But if the younger arms are pitching well, I think you’d take the opportunity to sell high. And the Royals may not really be given that choice. I remember back when Keller was pitching well, I was told by a few different people that he’s content to pitch through his arbitration years and get to free agency. I’m not sure if that would change if he’s pitching well and that close to the promised land.
I’m not sure what you can expect in a trade for a theoretically good Keller at the deadline, but the Angels got Mickey Moniak and Jadiel Sanchez for Noah Syndergaard. I guess that feels okay. I honestly don’t know of another deal that really fits what Keller would be, so it’s hard to say unless the Royals made it a package deal, but that’s something to consider too. Obviously this is putting the cart so far before the horse that they’re in different counties, but these are the things I think about and I’m sure the Royals do as well. They’re in a tough spot given the timing, and it’s a similar spot they were in with Adalberto Mondesi. When you’ve just got a year of team control left, things can get weird. I’m intrigued to see how it goes.
The numbers are great for Bobby Witt Jr., but I’ve heard nothing but great things about how he looks. The biggest thing I keep getting from people is just how competitive the plate appearances are for him. His strikeout rate last year was fine, but the 4.7 percent walk rate just doesn’t work if he wants to be more than a good player. I’ve seen this on television but also heard this from others that he is very clearly targeting a portion of the zone and not deviating. I’ve said before so many times that I believe in Witt because of the worker that he is and I think he’s done the work.
Kyle Isbel is getting a lot of the same reviews with his plate appearances. The results have been there, and that helps, but he’s taking pitches he can’t do damage on and swinging at those he can. With Drew Waters out, if Isbel can start strong, that would be big.
I think Matt Duffy is absolutely making this roster unless something bizarre happens. He’s had a great start with nine hits in 15 at bats and three doubles plus has some familiarity with Matt Quatraro from Tampa Bay. He generally gives a good plate appearance and plays competition defense had a couple of spots. Paired with a guy like Nicky Lopez, it gives them a lefty and a righty on the infield as utility players.
Jackson Kowar has shown a lot of what has people confused. He’s struck out five and walked one in three innings, but he’s allowed three home runs and has, at times, looked like a pitching machine. One of the scouts I’ve spoken to said that it looks like a different guy from pitch to pitch. I don't know if that’s encouraging or discouraging. I also haven’t heard from nearly as many people about how excited they are to see him, so there’s that.
I talked to a scout who has seen both Jonathan Heasley’s appearances by total chance and he was so unimpressed that he said he’d be a DFA when the Royals are adding NRIs to the roster. I don’t think the Royals will do that, but that’s pretty disappointing.
Jonathan Bowlan is a guy we can’t forget. If not for the injury in 2021, he’d have almost assuredly made his big league debut that year. He came back last season and wasn’t very good, but now he’s had a full offseason after his Tommy John recovery and he had a nice outing the other day that was very encouraging. He was maybe my favorite pitching prospect before the injury, so I’m watching him closely to start the year to see if he can help cause some problems in the big league rotation this year.
Of all the pitchers the Royals have, I think Lynch is the one who could be the best of the bunch. It’s an absolutely tiny sample, but in four innings, Lynch has one strikeout. He hasn’t walked a batter, so maybe this is just about him working on his control first, but I’m going to need to see some strikeouts at some point. If he can’t really start to get the swing and miss, I think he’s going to have a very hard time. I’m hopeful the strikeouts and whiffs catch up with the control. This is total stat scouting and I’ve been told he’s actually looked pretty good, but the Royals play in Missouri, so show me.
I don’t think Jose Cuas is making the Opening Day roster, assuming everyone is healthy, but he is really impressing this spring. Stats are what they are in spring, but four strikeouts and no walks in four innings is a great start. I’ll get to another roster projection this week and, as I said, I don’t think Cuas is going to be on it, but he’s close.