The Royals almost drafted this Rule-5 pitcher in 2013. Now he might join their bullpen

Pitcher Brad Keller, who was almost drafted by the Royals five years ago, is on the verge of making the team's opening day roster.
Pitcher Brad Keller, who was almost drafted by the Royals five years ago, is on the verge of making the team's opening day roster.

A cellphone repeatedly buzzed in the car, an intermittent series of vibrations distracting Royals' Rule-5 acquisition Brad Keller as he navigated morning traffic on busy highways in metro Atlanta.

It was a Thursday in December. The pitcher was driving from his home in Flowery Branch, Ga., to a training facility about an hour away in Norcross.

Business as usual.

Until congratulatory messages began to flood his phone. Keller had almost forgotten it was Rule 5 draft day.

Some 500 miles south at a Disney World resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., baseball executives had not forgotten. Keller was available to them as part of a draft that was put in place to protect minor-league players from being stashed away in a team’s farm system, like Keller had been after five years with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

If selected in the major-league portion of the draft, Keller would be required to be on his new team’s 25-man roster for the entire 2018 season or be offered back to the Diamondbacks.

The odds seemed long. Keller had never even received an invite to major-league spring-training camp before.

Then began a long game of telephone.

“My first thought was, ‘No way this happened,’ ” said Keller, originally selected out of Flowery Branch High School by the Diamondbacks in the eighth round of the 2013 draft. “My agent called me and was like, ‘Yeah, the Reds picked you up.’ ”

Keller called his parents and his brother as he veered into the slow lane, trying to be a responsible driver as his career shifted gears for Cincinnati.

His phone rang again. It was his agent. Again.

“He said, ‘Oh, just kidding, you got traded (to the Royals),’ ” Keller said. “And so I had to pick up the phone and call them all back again.”

So it was that the Royals wound up with a player who’s surpassed even their expectations this spring. Keller has struck out 12 batters in eight innings spanning seven appearances. The three earned runs on his stat sheet were given up in just one game against the Diamondbacks on March 10, when he allowed four straight two-out hits in his second inning on the mound that day.

With less than a week left for manager Ned Yost and the Royals to set their opening day roster, Keller, one of two Rule 5 acquisitions in camp, seems to be a near lock for the big-league bullpen.

And the funny thing is, Keller might have had a similar opportunity if he had fallen to the Royals five years ago during the 2013 first-year player draft.

Missed opportunity

Back then, the scouts didn’t flock to the northeastern suburbs of Atlanta for the 17-year-old Keller.

He’s from a town in Georgia known as the headquarters for the Atlanta Falcons. Flowery Branch High School is a four-mile drive to the NFL team’s training complex.

“That’s what everyone knows (it for),” said Keller of his hometown, which at the 2010 census had fewer than 6,000 residents. “There ain’t much there.”

And in the spring of 2013, they only ventured out for guys like Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier, who was selected fifth overall by the Indians that year, and Braves minor-leaguer Travis Demeritte, the Rangers’ first-round pick in the same draft.

Scouts happened upon Keller by accident, when Frazier visited and brought out so many scouts that Keller’s high school had to make arrangements for extra seating at the baseball field.

But on that evening, a little-known right-hander struck out one of the top prospects in the country — twice.

The Diamondbacks started calling. So did the Royals, who had heard about Keller earlier that season from a Flowery Branch assistant coach who served as a Royals associate scout.

Longtime Royals scout Sean Gibbs, who is now a regional supervisor in the Southeast, saw Keller progress from throwing an 84 mph fastball to throwing one that touched 91 mph within two months.

“You had to have the guts to dream on it,” Gibbs said, echoing the old-school philosophy of Hall of Fame scout Art Stewart.

Because Keller wasn’t throwing the 97 mph he can reach seemingly without effort now — back then the 6-foot-5 pitcher only looked the part.

“In high school, I thought he had a chance to be a really good fourth starter with a three-pitch mix,” Gibbs said. “The ball just got on hitters quicker because of his size. … He was just one of those guys that the stuff looked better than what the gun read.”

In a predraft workout at Kauffman Stadium later that spring, Keller impressed the Royals. He was affordable, Gibbs said, but for the Royals to land him, they needed him to fall into the 11th round so the Royals would not exceed their bonus pool in the top 10 rounds. That year, the Royals signed Hunter Dozier ($2.2 million), Sean Manaea ($3.55 million) and Cody Reed ($1.1985 million) with their top three picks.

Alas, the Diamondbacks — the only other team that was “hot and heavy” on him, Keller said — were the first to call.

“I was taking the first thing no matter what because, honestly, I got super-late seen,” Keller said. “My scout for the Diamondbacks told me most people just give up. It takes too much time to see a player that late and then try to draft them.”

As such, the Royals missed out the first go-round.

Second chance

For five seasons, Keller slowly advanced through the Diamondbacks’ system. He chewed up innings, a workhorse starter who at 20 years old threw 142 innings in low-Class A ball in 2015, then pitched 135 innings at advanced-Class A ball the following year.

He spent all of 2017 with the Class AA Jackson Generals, posting a 4.68 ERA and recording 111 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings spanning 26 starts.

He seemed on schedule for a promotion to Class AAA at some point in 2018, but at just 22 years old was not going to be rushed.

The Diamondbacks didn’t seem to think any team would pick in the Rule 5 draft a Class AA pitcher with a career 3.77 ERA who struck out 442 batters in 106 games (100 starts). He threw an above-average change-up but his slider still needed work. The Diamondbacks didn’t protect him from the draft by placing him on their 40-man roster.

Then, the Reds scooped Keller up with the fifth overall pick in the major-league portion.

And the Royals refused denial this time, encouraged by Keller’s frame, which in the future could still serve him as a starting pitcher, and the spike in his velocity.

Keller heard from Gibbs shortly after the Royals acquired him and pitcher Burch Smith in the December draft. The text message, Keller said, read: "We finally got you. ... After five years we got you."

It’s not that Keller comes at hitters with a deceptive delivery or a fastball that hits 100 mph.

But there is something to be said for a towering, 230-pound pitcher who throws at a downhill angle and owns a mid-to-high 90s fastball that sinks into the strike zone.

Others have noticed, too. After an outing last week, Yost said San Diego Padres manager Andy Green remarked, "Pretty good Rule-5 pick you guys got there."

“I wouldn’t call it effortless but he comes at you,” Yost said. “He throws strikes with his stuff. He’s not all over the place. He’s not pitching from behind. He’s coming after you.”

Now he’s coming after a roster spot, seemingly poised to make his major-league debut before he turns 23 at the end of July.

“It was weird how it all came full circle and now I’m here,” Keller said.