PITTSBURGH -- Right-hander Mitch Keller took another step toward the Majors this season. Infielder Kevin Kramer got the call every young player dreams of. Both learned through adversity at the next level, and both could play a role next season after being named MLB Pipeline's Pirates Prospects of the Year.
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Keller, Pittsburgh's top prospect per MLB Pipeline, battled through 10 starts in Triple-A Indianapolis after a midseason promotion from Double-A Altoona. Kramer, the Pirates' No. 7 prospect, struck out in half of his big league plate appearances in September. But Keller and Kramer's initial success seems more indicative of what's to come, making both worthy of this recognition.
Each team's Hitting and Pitching Prospects of the Year were chosen by the MLB Pipeline staff. To receive consideration, players must have spent at least half the year in the Minors and appeared on the team's Top 30 Prospects list.
Keller, the No. 16 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline, dominated in Double-A to start the season. The 22-year-old posted a 2.72 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 76 strikeouts in 86 innings over 14 starts for Altoona. At the end of June, the Pirates front office moved Keller to Triple-A.
In his first two starts for Indianapolis, Keller gave up 13 runs on 16 hits in 8 2/3 innings. To put that in perspective, he allowed 13 earned runs over his previous eight Double-A starts combined. Keller's next outing came in the Florida State League as a tune-up for the Futures Game. After he returned to Triple-A, the right-hander put together a 3.09 ERA while averaging a strikeout per inning over his final eight starts.
General manager Neal Huntington called it "a great learning year" for Keller, who is still refining his changeup to complement his high-octane fastball and hammer curveball. Pittsburgh must add Keller to its 40-man roster this offseason, and the right-hander likely will make his Major League debut sometime next year.
"He recognized that Triple-A hitters hit mistakes hard, and that changeup is going to be a really important weapon for him," Huntington said. "He learned that he's going to have to make pitches. He's going to have to attack the zone and stay ahead of hitters, and when he didn't, they made him pay for it. To see him battle back and finish fairly strong, that's going to be a great learning experience for him."
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the Pirates don't mind when their prospects struggle a little before they reach the Majors. No Major League player succeeds from start to finish without opponents exploiting a flaw in his game, so a slump at the plate or a skid on the mound is simply part of the development process. The key is how they bounce back.
That will be the case for Kramer next season, as his big league debut didn't go according to plan. Playing later in the year than ever before, the 25-year-old struck out 20 times and hit five singles in 40 plate appearances. Kramer still could lock down a utility spot on the bench next season given his ability to play three spots in the infield.
In Triple-A, Kramer proved that his injury-shortened breakout in Double-A last year was no fluke. The lefty-hitting infielder batted .311/.365/.492 with 15 homers and 35 doubles in 129 games for Indianapolis. After struggling in May, Kramer said he stopped worrying about the mechanics of his swing and focused strictly on his timing at the plate.
"When I started doing that, it freed me up just to go out there and compete. There are still things that I need to work on, and I know that," Kramer said last month. "I know what those areas are, and that's something that I will look to do here and take that into the offseason, but I think that I gave myself more of a chance."