Keller inks 5-year extension with Bucs, gets Opening Day nod

February 23rd, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Derek Shelton pulled out the bottle of champagne and placed it on his desk. seemed to know immediately what that meant.

"We've had a couple hugs over the past 12 months with last year's Opening Day starter, the All-Star Game, being at the All-Star Game with him and watching him pitch,” Shelton said. “Today, when I brought out the bottle of champagne, he had a pretty good idea that was why we were talking."

For years, the Pirates have been searching for someone who could be their ace of the rotation. They have it in Keller. And then they made sure he stays firmly in place.

The Pirates and their 27-year-old All-Star announced on Friday a five-year, $77 million deal that keeps him under contract through the 2028 season. It is the largest contract for a pitcher in franchise history, as well as the highest average annual value for a contract in team history.

David Bednar, Keller’s locker neighbor, knew the two sides were talking. When Keller walked in with a giant smile Thursday, he knew what that meant.

“It’s unbelievable,” Bednar said. “I don’t even have words. I’m just excited, as I’m sure he is. It’s well deserved. I’m so happy for him and his family. The journey that it took to get there, it’s remarkable. I think it makes it even sweeter.”

Keller’s journey has had more than a few bumps in the road. He struggled throughout most of the first three seasons of his career before breaking out midseason in 2022. He took another step again last season, earning his first All-Star nod when he went 13-9 with a 4.21 ERA and 210 strikeouts over 194 1/3 innings pitched. Those 210 punchouts were the most ever for a Pirates right-hander, and while the ERA was inflated a bit because of a slump after the All-Star Game, he was the team’s most reliable pitcher for most of the year.

“Obviously what he did last year for us just shows he can be an ace for us,” Ke'Bryan Hayes said. “We’re super happy to have him here long-term with us.”

The Pirates and Keller first engaged in serious extension talks a year ago, and while it did not come to fruition, it was clear that they were going to try again in 2024. Part of that confidence was because Keller was vocal that he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. It was a point of pride that he figured out how to become a front-of-the-rotation pitcher in Pittsburgh, and he wanted to stay.

“Being able to know guys are going to be around long-term, especially guys you’ve played with for a long time, and being able to have the same team going out there every day is big,” Hayes said. “We look at Mitch as being one of our best pitchers, so it’s great to have him here.”

When talking about the possibility of extending another notable player for the third straight year, Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said last week that there are certain boxes they want a player to check for the team to want to explore a long-term arrangement. The boxes that Keller checks are obvious. Yes, he pitches at an All-Star level, but he has also been viewed as a leader of the rotation and vocally wants to be in Pittsburgh. That is a great person to have when a young core of pitchers -- including Paul Skenes and Jared Jones -- reaches the Majors, which is expected to happen this season.

"It was not an easy path for Mitch,” Shelton said. “We've seen the highs. We've seen the lows. So for guys to know there's going to be struggles at times [and] how you're able to bounce out of that and stay consistent, we have a very good model there with Mitch."

This marks the third straight year the Pirates have extended a member of their core for at least $70 million. The club inked Hayes to an eight-year, $70 million contract in 2022 and Bryan Reynolds to an eight-year, $106.75 million deal in 2023. As a young team continues to develop in the Majors, they have their left fielder, third baseman and ace pitcher in place.

“I think everybody in here is pumped for him,” Reynolds said. “He deserves it.”