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Pirates' Arizona Fall League overview

Pittsburgh's top pitching prospect also represents top hurler in AFL
MLB.com @JonathanMayo

There is a balance teams try to find when dealing with players in the Minor Leagues, one between developing a player's individual tools and winning. Most teams these days try to incorporate one with the other, the idea being that teaching winning down on the farm will produce a player who expects to win once he gets to the big leagues.

The Pirates certainly have seemed to find the right recipe with top pitching prospect Mitch Keller. The No. 18 overall prospect on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 list (and No. 2 on the Pirates' Top 30) has been good pretty much wherever he's been since being drafted by Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 Draft, but he's developing a knack for turning it up a notch once the regular season is over.

There is a balance teams try to find when dealing with players in the Minor Leagues, one between developing a player's individual tools and winning. Most teams these days try to incorporate one with the other, the idea being that teaching winning down on the farm will produce a player who expects to win once he gets to the big leagues.

The Pirates certainly have seemed to find the right recipe with top pitching prospect Mitch Keller. The No. 18 overall prospect on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 list (and No. 2 on the Pirates' Top 30) has been good pretty much wherever he's been since being drafted by Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2014 Draft, but he's developing a knack for turning it up a notch once the regular season is over.

"I don't know what it is," Keller said as he gets extra work in with the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. "It's just something about the atmosphere and everything, every game matters, you're playing for it all. The playoffs are just a different feeling, it's a lot more fun, I guess. I enjoy playing in the playoffs."

There's a pattern forming in the 21-year-old's development path over the past two years: earn a promotion very late in the season and then dominate in that new level's playoffs. In 2016 in the Florida State League and again this season up in the Double-A Eastern League, Keller has gone a combined 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA in the postseason. Not surprisingly, he now has two championships on his resume.

Arizona Fall League roster & stats

Keller makes quick adjustments to his new surroundings, even when making the leap to Double-A. He understood the difference in the Eastern League's talent level and was able to post a lower batting average against (.197 vs .207 in the FSL) and better strikeout rate (11.7/9 vs. 7.4), albeit in just six starts. He's taken those lessons with him to shape his plan in the AFL.

"Definitely at the lower levels, you can get by with a lot of different things," Keller said. "Once you hit Double-A, they're really good hitters and they have really good approaches, so you really do find out what you need to work on. I think what I'm working on here in this league will eventually help me get to where I need to be."

Keller didn't have to wait around to be challenged in Arizona. In his first outing, the very first batter he faced was Braves phenom Ronald Acuna, the teenaged Futures Gamer who has one of the most exciting all-around tool packages in baseball. Getting the No. 5 prospect in baseball to wave at a fastball made the butterflies subside.

"It was fun," Keller said. "I knew he was up, I knew he was going to lead off, I saw the lineup earlier in the day and I was excited for it. I was a little nervous, those pregame and in-game nerves a little bit because you care about it and you want to do well. Once I struck him out, I relaxed a little bit."

Pirates hitters in the Fall League

Kevin Kramer, 2B/SS -- Kramer was off to a solid start in Double-A when a fractured hand sent him to the disabled list in June. The Pirates No. 9 prospect returned, albeit with considerable rust, in time for the second round of the playoffs and is now making up for lost at-bats, while also getting time at shortstop for the first time since college, in the Fall League.

Video: Kevin Kramer on representing Pirates in Fall League

Mitchell Tolman, 2B -- A seventh-round pick in 2015 out of Oregon, Tolman spent nearly all of the 2017 season in the Florida State League, though he earned a bump up to Double-A at the very end of the season. He capped off a season that saw him reach double digits in home runs (10) and stolen bases (24) by going 8-for-24 as Altoona won the Eastern League title.

Logan Hill, OF -- A broken hand ended Hill's regular season in late July, 22 games into his promotion to Double-A, so he had to watch that playoff run from the sidelines. Still, the 2015 25th-round pick out of Troy managed to hit 18 homers in just 93 games, and while he still has some swing and miss, his strikeout rate went down while his walk rate went up.

Pirates pitchers in the Fall League

J.T. Brubaker, RHP -- A three-year starter at Akron, Brubaker has moved quickly since the Pirates took him in the sixth round of the 2015 Draft, pitching all of 2017 in Double-A. After nearly 130 regular-season innings and a strong playoff start, the right-hander is pitching in relief in the AFL.

Taylor Hearn, LHP -- While Hearn, acquired from the Nationals in 2016 in the Mark Melancon deal, missed more than a month and a half of the Florida State League season because of an oblique injury, the lefty did show his power stuff worked just fine at that level. The Pirates' No. 11 prospect struck out 10.9 per nine in 87 1/3 innings with Bradenton. He's pitching in relief and continuing to work on his command in Arizona.

Brandon Waddell, LHP -- A forearm strain limited Waddell to just 78 innings during the regular season with Double-A Altoona, though he did return to have a strong August and toss six innings of shutout ball in a playoff win. The Pirates' No. 23 prospect has also been pitching out of the Glendale bullpen.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

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