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Exactly one year ago, Mitch Keller looked destined to join the likes of Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, Charlie Morton, and others as a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who blossomed after joining another team. In some cases the turnaround was so immediate it happened seemingly overnight. The Pirates couldn't finish off the development of their best young pitchers. Other teams could.

On May 18, 2022, Keller allowed one run in 2 2/3 relief innings against the Chicago Cubs. It was his first outing since being moved to the bullpen. In seven starts to begin the season, Keller had a 6.61 ERA and opponents were hitting .284/.345/.455 against him. The YouTube broadcast showed this graphic during that May 18 games at Wrigley Field:

"I was just trying to have a job, honestly," Keller recently told about his struggles last season. "I was just trying to put something together so I could stay in this clubhouse with these guys and have a uniform."  

Fast forward to May 15, 2023, and Keller ranks among the very best pitchers in baseball. Sunday afternoon he struck a career-high 13 batters in seven shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles, owners of MLB's second-best record, at Camden Yards. That came six days after Keller threw Pittsburgh's first nine-inning shutout since 2018.

"We've talked about the fundamental adjustments and the mechanical adjustments or the pitch mix adjustments. The biggest thing that I personally see is the look in his eyes," Pirates manager Derek Shelton told after Sunday's game. "Before, it was like, 'Am I going to execute a pitch?' Now, it's, 'I am going to execute a pitch.' I think the mental maturity there is a really huge step."

Keller made two relief appearances after being demoted to the bullpen last May, then he pitched to a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts after moving back into the rotation, including a 2.71 ERA in his final 15 starts. The turnaround started when Keller cut back on his four-seam fastball and incorporated a sinker. This year he's added a cutter as well, and he now throws three pitches at least 20% of the time (four-seamer, sinker, cutter) plus two others at least 10% of the time (curveball, slider). He also has a changeup.

Nine starts into the season Keller owns a 2.38 ERA and 1.02 WHIP with impressive strikeout (30.1%) and walk (6.1%) rates. The MLB averages are 22.7% strikeouts and 8.8% walks, for reference. Deserved Runs Allowed, which adjusts for ballpark and contact quality allowed and opponent and many other things, says Keller has been 24% better than the average pitcher this season, which puts him in the same range as established frontline starters like Max Fried and Shane McClanahan.

It is no surprise then that the Pirates are discussing a long-term contract extension with Keller, according to USA Today. Keller can not become a free agent until after the 2025 season, so this is not an urgent matter, but surely the Pirates want to get this wrapped up soon. Pittsburgh has extended third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes (eight years, $70 million) and outfielder Bryan Reynolds (seven years, $106.75 million) within the last 13 months. Keller is the team's next obvious extension candidate.

"I've only been with Pittsburgh, so it's all I really know," Keller told on Sunday. "I'd love to spend my whole career here, hopefully as long as possible. Having guys like (Hayes) and Reynolds locked up, it's really cool to see some core guys getting locked in. I would love to be a part of that."

Two pitchers at the same service-time level as Keller have signed extensions this year: Logan Webb and Cristian Javier. Webb, ace of the San Francisco Giants, received five years and $90 million at age 26. Javier signed a five-year deal worth $64 million with the Houston Astros. He is also 26. Keller turned 27 last month and will earn a touch more than $2.43 million this season.

Like Keller, Webb struggled early in his career, though he signed his extension coming off back-to-back excellent seasons (2.96 ERA in 340 2/3 innings from 2021-22), so much so that he received Cy Young votes last year. Also, his extension kicks in next year. Add in Webb's already agreed to $4.6 million salary for 2023, and it's effectively a six-year, $94.6 million deal covering 2023-28.

Javier's extension is more applicable to Keller. Although he's been effective his entire career, Javier has spent most of it bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. He still doesn't have a full MLB season as a starting pitcher under his belt -- Javier began 2022 in the bullpen and moved the rotation full-time last May. Like Keller, his track record as a top tier starter is short.

The Pirates are 2-11 since beginning the season 20-8, so although this may not be the dream season the Pittsburgh faithful hoped, there are signs the team is moving in the right direction. Keller emerging as an ace-caliber starter is a major part of that, and signing him to a long-term extension to ensure he's with the club when they're ready to contend is an important piece of business. The Pirates want to lock him up the same way they locked up Hayes and Reynolds.