Salvador Perez, a World Series champion, All-Star, Gold Glove-winning catcher and one of the Royals’ clubhouse leaders, chuckled as he let what amounted to an open secret escape from his lips.
On the day Royals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, the Royals backstop basically anointed Brad Keller the next ace of the pitching staff.
“Don’t say anything bro,” Perez said Tuesday to a group of reporters with a wink, “but for me he’s No. 1.”
If you dared question whether Keller’s 2018 could be duplicated or it was indicative of what should be expected of him, Salvy provided his answer the first morning he spoke with media in Arizona.
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The remarkable progression from relatively anonymous minor-league pitcher — he’d ranked no higher than the eighth-best prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system — will without a doubt continue if you believe Perez.
In fact, when asked if Keller can get better, Perez responded “way better.”
“I don’t think he surprised me. He’s a big guy. He’s got pretty good movement on his ball. He throws hard, and I think he’s excited to be here,” Perez said before he doubled down on his assessment of Keller. “Seriously, I think he’s a No. 1 this year.”
The Royals took a flier on Keller, who the Cincinnati Reds picked from the Diamondbacks’ system in the major-league portion of the Rule 5 draft last winter. The Reds traded Keller to the Royals in exchange for future considerations.
Suddenly, the former eighth-round pick out of Flowery Branch High School in Georgia who’d never pitched above Double-A or even been invited to big-league spring training had a chance to make the Royals’ opening day roster.
“It was fun to sit back and look back and how everything went down, but you can’t put too much thought into that because this year is a new year,” Keller said last month during FanFest in Kansas City. “You start with a clean slate.”
Keller’s nine wins tied for team-high last season despite him having made more relief appearances (21) than starts (20) in his first year with the organization. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander posted a 9-6 record with a 3.08 ERA with a 1.30 WHIP and 96 strikeouts in 140 1/3 innings across 41 games.
Keller, 23, went 8-5 with a 3.28 ERA and 1.35 ERA with 83 strikeouts and 43 walks in 118 innings as a starter. He went 7-2 in 12 starts after the All-Star break.
With the benefit of hindsight, Keller asserted that his progression from bullpen to starting rotation helped immensely with his transition to the big leagues. He went so far as to claim he’d have been “lost” if he tried to jump from starting in the minors into the Royals rotation.
“The adjustment period between hitters,” Keller said at FanFest. “Double-A hitter versus big-league hitters, they’re there for a reason. Rolling through the lineup two or three times, knowing that guys sit on pitches, guys look for pitches — especially their second or third time through the lineup. (You’d be) jumping from a Double-A team that not every hitter might do that, maybe a few of them do, to a big-league roster that all of them do that.”
He credited pitching coach Cal Eldred, bullpen coach Vance Wilson and bench coach Dale Sveum for helping him understand the scouting reports and the voluminous amount of information available on every opposing hitter and translating that into a game plan.
Now, Keller may have made himself one of the givens on a pitching staff that still needs sorting out.
The Royals have veteran starters Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy on long-term contracts. But Duffy (8-12) recorded his worst ERA (4.88) since his rookie season while an oblique injury largely marred Kennedy’s season. Kennedy went 3-9 in a year that included a two-month stint on the disabled list.
Jakob Junis (9-12, 4.37) started 30 games and led the team in strikeouts (164) and boasted the best WHIP (1.27) of any starting pitcher on the staff other than Eric Skoglund (1-6, 5.14), who made just 13 starts. Skoglund will begin this season serving an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
The Royals will have other starting pitching options at camp, including longtime Reds pitcher Homer Bailey, Heath Fillmyer and Jorge Lopez, who each showed flashes of potential last year. Some of those players could also factor into the bullpen.
But don’t try to get Perez to go out on any limbs when it comes to projected rotations.
“I’m just leaving that to the pitching coach and the manager,” Perez said.