Keller 'super grateful' for contract extension, support from Bucs staff

February 23rd, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When talking to Bob Nutting on one of the fields at Pirate City this week, reminisced to the Pirates’ owner what it was like to watch the Major League team go on a playoff run nearly a decade ago. It was the talk of the camp in Fall Instructional League, which isn’t really the best of times for young players, but the playoffs were something to look forward to that night.

“That’s been engraved in my brain for a while,” Keller said Friday. “I hope that people that are staying at Pirate City can watch us play one day too. Inspire them to be the same and continue with the hard work throughout.”

On Friday, he and the Pirates agreed to a five-year deal that will ensure he will have that opportunity to bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh for years to come.

The deal will pay $77 million, making it the largest contract for a pitcher in franchise history. It’s the third time in less than 24 months that the team inked one of its foundational players to an extension, totaling over a quarter of a billion dollars guaranteed to Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryan Reynolds and Keller.

“[These deals] certainly marry up at a time when we think the future is bright,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “Every player on the team is important, all 26. We need contributions from all 26 of ‘em. But it’s helpful to have those anchors in different parts of the team. Those three guys represent that.”

Surrounded by family, his teammates and his coaches on LECOM Park’s left-field patio, the All-Star pitcher firmly cemented what he has been vocally wanting for about a year now -- an extension to ensure he can stay with the only organization he has known.

“It’s really freeing,” Keller said. “Now I can just go worry about winning a baseball game rather than stressing out about every little thing. I’m still going out there and competing as hard as I can every day, this doesn’t change anything on that end, but it adds another level of camaraderie and having a core group of players that will be here for an extended period of time, which I personally believe that really helps a team come together even more.”

With this new deal, Keller will be the veteran of a young rotation for years to come. Young arms like Roansy Contreras, Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester are currently competing for Opening Day starter jobs. That group should become even younger when prospects like Paul Skenes, Jared Jones and Mike Burrows presumably break through to the Majors this year.

“There's a lot of talent in the organization coming up behind him,” Nutting said. “If you had to pick a player, pick a pitcher, to lead the way, we're extremely pleased to have Mitch in that role."

Keller’s journey to this point was hardly smooth sailing. His 2021 campaign saw his velocity fall and ERA rise, resulting in him being demoted to the Minors. He was briefly demoted to the bullpen the following year. But the coaching staff stuck by him, and he elevated himself to All-Star status in 2023 while setting the franchise record for most strikeouts by a Pirate right-hander in a season (210). It’s why Keller became briefly choked up when acknowledging manager Derek Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin for what they had done for him.

This isn’t a happy ending -- he just signed for five years, after all -- but a happy somewhere in the middle.

“This doesn’t seem real,” Keller said. “It honestly hasn’t set in yet. I’m just super grateful. Those times when everyone just leaned into me and gave me the confidence when I had probably zero, they let me know who I was as a person and who I was as a player was gonna be able to come through. That springboarded me into the past few seasons when it’s been really good.”

Now that he reflects on the journey it took to get here, it helped make him the All-Star he is today.

“I don’t think I’d be quite as good or as mentally tough as I am if I didn’t go through those struggles,” Keller said. “There are probably going to be more struggles this year, next year, who knows. But knowing it’s not the end of the world and being able to move on to get the next pitch, next batter or next game, you know it’s going to be OK.”