It’s not real until it is. That’s how 2017 Jackson Generals pitcher Brad Keller felt about his Rule 5 Draft selection on Thursday.
“Some people were telling me it might happen, and I didn’t really believe it,” the 22-year-old Keller said. “I thought that would be a pretty cool situation if it did happen, but I didn’t put too much thought into it. My agent kind of downplayed it, saying ‘It’s like, 50-50, we’ll see, it should be interesting.’ And I was like, alright, whatever.”
Sitting at the breakfast table in his Atlanta area home, the six-foot-five right-hander saw a familiar name drafted early: 2017 Generals outfielder Victor Reyes went first overall to the Detroit Tigers. Still, no strong premonitions for Keller.
“When I saw Vic’s name, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome. A guy I was playing with, and now he’s got a chance to go to the big leagues,’” Keller said. “I walked out the door, headed to workouts, and it happened while I was driving, so it was kind of tough [to respond to anything]. Once I got to workouts, all my buddies had already found out about it, so they were going crazy, which was pretty cool.”
Taken with the fifth pick in the Rule 5 draft by the Cincinnati Reds, Keller was traded within minutes to Kansas City for cash or a player to be named later. In need of pitching depth, the Royals didn’t stop dealing after Keller, trading also for former Tampa Bay right-hander Burch Smith, another Rule 5 selection by the New York Mets.
Smith has been up and down over the last few years after a debut with San Diego in 2013. Keller is still on his way up, though 2017 was a battle at times.
“Started off really well, and then went through a crazy rough patch right through the middle of the season,” Keller recalled. “I was really happy with how I was able to learn from everything that went down, actually learning how to pitch, being able to go out there and execute the game-plans, especially later in the season, and turn some things around.”
Keller rolled through his first four starts at Double-A, completing 20.2 innings with a 1.31 ERA by May 1. The next two months proved difficult, as Keller failed to finish the fifth inning in six of his next ten starts. His ERA ballooned to 5.24 as July began, so the Generals’ field staff brought Keller into the shop for some tuning. Generals manager J.R. House, who had also been Keller’s skipper at High-A Visalia in 2016, turned on the tape.
“Me, House, and Dougie [pitching coach Doug Drabek], we went back and looked at film. We went through what we did last year at Visalia and what was working at the beginning of the year,” Keller said. “We found some mechanical adjustments that we worked on, and also just pitch sequencing. I think being able to use it all better [was key]. I was really only pitching with two [options], because I had very little comfort in my changeup at the time. And they said, ‘Alright, we’re going to force you to throw changeups.’”
Having a third usable pitch is often the difference between big-league starters and relievers. Second and third cycles through the other team’s lineup become easier with more pitches, because opposing hitters can’t predict what’s coming quite as well. Keller had some hiccups, but he pitched into the sixth inning and allowed three or fewer runs in eight of his final twelve starts. His last four contests featured a 1.09 ERA and 26 strikeouts over 24.2 innings.
“Ever since [making that change], I started throwing really well,” Keller said. “We tweaked some mechanical things, and I felt like the ball was coming out way better. That’s pretty much all that happened. So I’m just focusing on that last month, month-and-a-half. Focusing on what I did there and then just kind of [trying to] carry that over [to 2018].”
Generals fans can follow Keller’s journey from afar on Twitter: @Brad_Keller13.
*Keller credits 2017 Generals personnel like catcher Michael Perez, strength coach Mike Locasto, and trainer Ryne Eubanks for giving him additional help when he struggled. Perez had caught Keller on a regular basis since the two worked together at Low-A Kane County. “I had a really good supporting staff [at Jackson],” Keller says. “It was awesome, it was fun.”
*Keller’s offseason so far has been pretty simple: travel a little, golf some, train a lot. “I can never seem to put a full 18 [holes] together, but we’ll get to it one day,” he says. “I’ve been traveling a little bit, but mostly [been] hanging out in Atlanta. I’ve got all the resources I need here to get better.”
*At 22, Keller becomes the youngest pitcher on the Royals’ 40-man roster. He doesn’t think about his age much. “I was telling one of my buddies this: When I go and play with these guys, I just feel like we’re all the same age, like age gets thrown out the window,” Keller notes. “We’re teammates. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 21 or 31, we’re all on the same team, working for the same goal.”
Tyler Springs does media relations and broadcasting for the Jackson Generals. Keep up with team news on Twitter by following @JacksonGenerals. Tyler tweets, too: @TyphoonSprings.