Keller optioned to Triple-A amid tough start

Bucs No. 4 prospect Cruz impresses with monster home run at Double-A

June 12th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- After some internal conversations over the past two days, the Pirates decided to option their former No. 1 prospect to Triple-A amidst a tough start to his season.

“It’s a challenging move,” manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s a tough move, but it’s a move that’s important for both Mitch and the Pirates. We need to get him in a situation where he’s commanding the fastball better, he’s doing things that are making him an effective big league pitcher.”

Keller’s spot in the rotation will be taken by Wil Crowe, who was recalled on Saturday from Triple-A and is expected to start on Sunday.

The arc of Keller’s 2021 season has been a line oscillating from good start to bad start, and the past two have been in the latter bucket. On June 4, he exited after two innings due to a “heat illness,” but his pitch count was already up to 45 pitches with two runs allowed on two hits and three walks. Then, Thursday vs. the Dodgers, he was pulled at 72 pitches after completing only 2 2/3 innings of work with four runs allowed on his line.

That boosted his ERA to 7.04, and unlike his unlucky 2019 season -- when he had a 7.13 ERA, but a 2.73 expected ERA -- his xERA this season sits at 5.60. He’s completed as many outings of 3 1/3 IP or fewer (6) as he has five innings or more (6) this season.

“He realizes that there’s things to work on and that there’s a plan in place for that to happen, and he took it very professionally,” Shelton said. “Obviously, he’s disappointed.”

The Pirates have a plan of attack they believe in to get Keller back on track, though Shelton did not choose to get into the specifics of what he wanted the right-hander to work on. What we know is that Keller possesses a high-velocity fastball, a slider that has drawn decent whiff and he was a great command pitcher coming through the Minor Leagues.

There’s a reason he was such a highly touted prospect, and Shelton said the Pirates have not lost any faith in him at all.

“We really feel he’s going to be a good big league pitcher,” Shelton said, “but we’ve got to put him in a situation to do that.”

How far?
Pirates No. 4 prospect is a web gem in waiting every time he steps to the plate this season.

Cruz homered to the rollercoaster in right field at PNG Field on Wednesday for Double-A Altoona in a wacky 14-13 game between the Curve and the RubberDucks. Then, he one-upped that shot on Friday.

Facing Akron starter Shane McCarthy, Cruz sent a 1-1 offering deep down the right-field line out of the frame of Altoona’s video feed. That’s likely because, per the Curve’s broadcast, the ball traveled an unofficial 463 feet with a 120 mph exit velocity.

“It makes me smile,” Shelton said. “I actually saw the video of it last night after the game. They told me after the game he hit a ball 120 mph, so I actually had one of our guys look up how many guys have hit 120 since Statcast started.”

That list? It’s only three players long in the Statcast era (since 2015): Giancarlo Stanton (10), Aaron Judge (1) and Gary Sánchez (1).

Though the power has long been there for Cruz, the Pirates have wanted to see consistency as he’s tested at the Double-A level, and he’s proven it. The 6-foot-7 shortstop has hit .286/.355/.554 with five doubles, two triples and seven homers in 28 games.

“From watching a little bit of the swings we’ve seen, it sounds like he’s making adjustments,” Shelton said. “He’s a young kid. That’s what time in the Minor Leagues is for -- to make those adjustments and continue to get better -- and he’s definitely doing that.”

Cahill to IL
was sent to the injured list on Saturday with a left calf strain, the same injury he sustained on May 19 in St. Louis.

Cahill returned to game action for the first time from that bout out of the bullpen on Friday, when he pitched 1 1/3 innings against the Brewers. He was checked briefly in the eighth inning after he pirouetted and showed a slight limp, but he stayed in the game.

The Pirates recalled Geoff Hartlieb from Triple-A Indianapolis in a corresponding move.