To pitch or putt?
That was the question Mitch Keller weighed when he was a high school sophomore.
Keller was a dominant high school pitcher, but he also possessed talent on the golf course.
He once shot a 2-under-par round in the Iowa high school state postseason tournaments.
But Keller didn’t follow the path of Zach Johnson, a fellow Iowan with two major titles, including a Masters championship.
Instead, Keller chose baseball.
I kind of knew in the back of my head what I wanted to do. I kind of figured that if I was going to play college golf, I probably wouldn’t. It’s really hard to be a pro golfer. And I had already been told I could be a professional baseball player.
Bradenton Marauders pitcher and top Pirates prospect Mitch Keller on choosing baseball over golf
In doing so, he set in motion his arrival as a top Pittsburgh Pirates prospect. This season, Keller starts with the Bradenton Marauders, who begin their season on Thursday in Port Charlotte against the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Their home opener is Saturday, also against Charlotte.
“I kind of knew in the back of my head what I wanted to do,” said Keller about his choice to pursue baseball. “I kind of figured that if I was going to play college golf, I probably wouldn’t. It’s really hard to be a pro golfer. And I had already been told I could be a professional baseball player.”
Keller’s time in Bradenton this season, though, will not be new for the right-hander with a power fastball and power curve.
Keller received a late promotion to Pittsburgh’s high Single-A affiliate, and he delivered in the playoffs as the Marauders captured their first Florida State League championship. The late call-up from Single-A West Virginia took Keller, who was planning on seeing the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry football game, by surprise.
“I’m glad I didn’t get to go to that football game,” Keller said.
Keller logged a 2.46 earned-run average and 131 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings at West Virginia last year. His 2016 season earned him the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year award, beating fellow top prospect and former Marauder Tyler Glasnow.
Prior to generating that type of buzz, Keller was lighting it up at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he threw a mid-90s fastball and a curve that overpowered high school hitters.
With his older brother Jon, who is with Baltimore’s Double-A affiliate, the Bowie Baysox, and Ryan Sweeney, who played for the Chicago Cubs, as Xavier alumni in pro baseball, Mitch Keller chose to follow their footsteps.
The Pirates drafted him in the second round of the 2014 draft. Since then, he’s blossomed into the No. 3 prospect in Pittsburgh’s organization, according to MLB Pipeline.
“You get that number by your name and you try not to look at it, but I mean with social media today, it’s kind of hard not to,” Keller said. “... But you’ve got to find ways to block it out.”
Since arriving in pro baseball, Keller has navigated how to put a game plan together to attack hitters, and he has added a change-up to his arsenal. That third pitch is something Keller said is key in his development.
“If I don’t ever develop it, then I’m not going to go anywhere,” Keller said. “So if I don’t have it, I won’t have a career in the big leagues because you need three, at least three, (pitches). So that’s huge for me.”
Added Bradenton Marauders’ first-year manager Gera Alvarez: “Once he masters a secondary pitch, I think everybody will see. He’s going to keep on moving up the system.”
Keller isn’t the only top prospect or strong arm to watch this season in Bradenton.
Left-hander Taylor Hearn, right-hander Gage Hinsz, righty Dario Agrazal and righty Pedro Vasquez are the other pitchers to watch.
Mix in a lineup that features Will Craig, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker, and this season’s Marauders is loaded with top prospects in Pittsburgh’s farm system.
Alvarez said Lakewood Ranch High School alumnus Seth McGarry is a back of the bullpen guy.
“I think what he has is grit,” Alvarez said. “I think he pitches with a chip on his shoulder every day, and we respect that. He goes out there and gives his best. He’s a competitor. He wants to win.”
Who: Bradenton (0-0) at Charlotte (0-0)
When: Thursday, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte
Starting pitchers: TBD
Internet: Audio is livestreamed online via TuneIn Radio, via Bradentonmarauders.com