Last year, I examined potential contract extensions for three Royals players. In that article, I started from the premise that each player would improve over their 2018 stats and garner an extension offer from the front office.
Today, I want to examine the case for Brad Keller being extended once again. In light of the 2018 draft classes rise to the upper minors and stellar performance so far in spring training, this may seem like a strange thing to consider. After all, Keller has not shown any evidence of being a particularly dominant starter. He’s produced a 2.6 fWAR and 2.2 fWAR season, which is perfectly adequate, but nothing that jumps off the page as worthy of any kind of a lengthy contract.
There are a few reasons, however, I feel locking Keller up to a longer term deal may be worthwhile.
He is still quite young
Keller is still only entering his age-24 season. He was able to make the jump from AA to the Majors in 2018 without missing a beat. While he has failed to dominate (a K/9 of 6.42) he has proven to be effective against the best competition in the world at a very young age.
I feel this is more important than most are willing to stress. The average age of a rookie pitcher is 25.3 years of age, and Keller is entering his third full season in the majors nearly a full year younger than this. When considering prospects, age of competition is always taken into consideration. When we see players who are significantly younger than their competition who hold their own, it should be an added factor (up until the “peak years”, which is such a contested subject that I won’t bother to say when they are).
Given that Keller is has been so much younger than his peer group, I am bullish that he can work to improve and be more effective.
He is learning a new pitch
The Athletic reported a few weeks ago that Keller was learning to throw a curve to go along with his fastball/sinker/slider combo (I don’t include his change-up that he throws just 1.9 percent of the time). He has fared much better against righties (.241/.293/.353) than lefties (.258/.356/.368), so adding another pitch to target lefty hitters would be useful. It remains to be seen how effective this pitch will be, but reports are he learned it quickly.
Should Keller prove able to throw even an average curveball, his value will likely go up significantly. It’s not difficult to imagine his strikeout rate going up a point or two given how bad it currently is (just over 15% against righties compared to 18% against lefties).
He has been healthy
It’s not known why some players are “injury prone” while others are not. Mondesi has been sidelined by injury after injury in his career despite being considered one of the most athletic players in the game. Don’t even get me started talking about Zimmer. But Brad Keller has been healthy.
Including the minor leagues, he has pitched at least 130 2⁄3 innings every year since 2015. Yes, he was shut down at the end of last season due to workload, but the Royals were well out of the running by late August and were wanting to protect an asset in a lost season. This is something I can get behind.
The 2018 draft class alone will not save us
Look, I know it’s exciting to hear about fast rising prospects and seeing draft picks pan out, but it’s unrealistic to expect our 2024 rotation is not going to be made up of five of our current top pitching prospects. We will need more help, be it from current players, free agent signings or trades. Having a cost-controlled innings eater to fill out the back end of your rotation is never a bad thing, and any extension for Keller, if made now, is likely to be pretty cheap.
So, now we have covered the reasons I believe he deserves an extension. How much would I offer and for how long?
It is difficult to find comps to Keller, given his young age and average performance, but some names I looked at were Wade Miley, Tanner Roark and Julio Teheran. Miley’s rookie year was spectacular, but he fell off through his arbitration years earning about $9.7 million over his three arbitration years. Roark was a better pitcher leading up to his arbitration years than Keller has shown to be, but was significantly older (his age-27 season was his rookie year). He earned $20.79 million over his three arbitration years.
Teheran was extended following his rookie season, and his contract was for $32.4 million over six years (with a team option for a 7th in 2020). He did not live up to this deal, with his rookie season being his best by ERA, FIP, xFIP, innings pitched and fWAR.
So there we have three different examples of pitchers who have recently gone through arbitration (or were extended through their arbitration years) with similar value to Keller. Given that the Royals currently control Keller for this season and three arbitration years (and that he will only be 28 by Opening Day of 2024), I could see something along the lines of Teheran’s extension (6 years, $32 million) being a low-end offer, maxing out perhaps at 5 years, $40 million (which would include this season).
Would Keller take such an offer? It’s difficult to say. To date, he has only earned the Major League minimum the last two seasons, and is not due any kind of pay day until next off-season when he becomes arbitration eligible. Locking up tens of millions of dollars can’t be a bad thing. For the Royals, it would provide a reliable, healthy, young pitcher entering his prime years at a controlled, known cost moving forward. I see this as a win-win.