Amidst another rebuilding year, the Pirates have ample uncertainty in the starting rotation. Free agent signee José Quintana is going to get one spot, with the Bucs hoping he performs well enough to be flipped midseason for younger talent. JT Brubaker had solid enough strikeout and walk numbers over 24 starts last year to get another opportunity, while Zach Thompson — acquired from the Marlins in the Jacob Stallings deal — is likely to be in the mix.
Among those likely under consideration for spots at the back of the rotation are two former top prospects: right-handers Mitch Keller and Bryse Wilson. Both pitchers are in their mid-20s, and they were each among Baseball America’s top 100 overall farmhands as recently as three years ago. At the peak of their prospect status, both pitchers were viewed as potential long-term members of a starting rotation. Yet neither has yet established himself as such, and one could argue that 2022 will function as a make-or-break sort of season for both.
Keller has been a familiar name for Pirates fans for some time. A second-round pick out of high school in 2014, he emerged as one of the sport’s most promising pitching prospects after a dominating showing in Low-A in 2016. Entering the 2017 campaign, BA considered him the game’s #22 overall farmhand. He’d remain among the top 60 prospects in each of the following three seasons, pairing a mid-90s fastball with a plus curveball that led many to project him as a future mid-rotation arm.
The Iowa native made his big league debut in 2019. While he allowed a 7.13 ERA over his first 48 MLB innings, Keller was plagued by an astounding .475 batting average on balls in play. His 28.6% strikeout rate, 7% walk percentage and 11.8% swinging strike rate all looked like indicators he could indeed be a mid-rotation or better arm in the making. Keller was limited to just five starts in the shortened 2020 campaign, ironically posting a very good ERA (2.91) but dreadful peripherals. Still, as he entered his age-25 season last year, Keller looked to be a key piece of the Bucs’ long-term plans.
That’s perhaps more of a question now, though. He started 23 games and worked 100 2/3 innings, but he managed just a 6.17 ERA. As with 2019, some horrible ball in play results (.388 opponents’ BABIP) played a role in his struggles keeping runs off the board. But Keller’s fielding-independent numbers weren’t nearly as impressive last year as they’d been during his debut campaign. His 19.6% strikeout rate and 10.4% walk percentage were each a few points worse than the respective league averages. Among the 129 hurlers with 100+ frames, Keller placed 121st in swinging strikes (8.2%).
Keller’s fastball velocity has ticked down a bit since his prospect peak, but a 93.9 MPH average fastball is still more than sufficient. Arguably more concerning is that none of his offspeed pitches was particularly effective. Only his slider was in the realm of average in terms of generating whiffs, and each of his slider, curve and changeup were hit hard. Finding a consistently reliable secondary pitch figures to be a focus for Keller and pitching coach Oscar Marin. If he doesn’t show promise in that regard, the front office could be faced with a tough decision. Keller’s on track to reach arbitration eligibility next offseason, and he could be a non-tender candidate if he posts another season like his 2021 campaign.
The urgency might be even greater for Wilson. While he’s not set to reach arbitration until after the 2023 season (unless the union succeeds in its efforts to expand eligibility for players in the 2-3 year service bucket during CBA talks), Wilson is facing roster pressure of a different sort. He’s out of minor league option years, meaning the Pirates would need to make him available to the rest of the league if they decide to bump him off the active roster.
An overslot fourth-round selection out of high school by the Braves in 2016, Wilson posted absurd numbers in the low minors over his first two years in pro ball. By 2018, the North Carolina native was traversing four levels. He began that season in High-A but pitched his way to the majors by August. Wilson only made three MLB appearances down the stretch, but that he was in the big leagues by age 20 was itself a remarkable accomplishment.
Wilson headed into 2019 as a consensus top 100 prospect, albeit at the back half of most lists. While he wasn’t viewed as a future top-of-the-rotation arm, most expected Wilson could cement himself within the Atlanta rotation in short order. He spent the bulk of 2019 in Triple-A, though, and he was shuttled between MLB and the alternate training site throughout 2020. Wilson started only six big league games between those two years.
Last year, Wilson got his first extended MLB opportunity. He made eight starts apiece with the Braves and Pirates, who acquired him at the trade deadline as part of the Richard Rodríguez swap. Unfortunately, he didn’t find much success at either stop. Between the two clubs, he combined for a 5.35 ERA across 74 innings.
Wilson showed strong control (6.8% walk rate) but struggled with home runs and only fanned 14.3% of opponents on a meager 8.7% swinging strike rate. Wilson, like Keller, suffered from an inability to find a reliable swing-and-miss secondary pitch. He used his fastball nearly as much as any starter around the league, likely playing a part in both his lack of whiffs and home run issues.
For both Keller and Wilson, the 2022 campaign looks likely to be a key developmental season. Wilson will need to pitch well enough to stick on the active roster; Keller can be sent back to the minors, but he’s likely to be in his final pre-arbitration year. As they rebuild, the Pirates can afford to give the former top prospects another opportunity. Yet if Keller and/or Wilson are to establish themselves as rotation cogs, as many anticipated they would a few years ago, they’ll have to find more success against big league hitters than they have in recent seasons.