The 2020 major league season was for KC Royals starter Brad Keller exactly what it was for every other major leaguer—short. But Keller’s campaign was also sweet, a redemption of sorts following his distressing 2019 performance. He improved from a dismal 7-14 with a 4.19 ERA to 5-3, 2.47, threw the only shutout of his four-year career, and earned his second club Pitcher of the Year award.
This year, however, is decidedly different, with Keller putting up numbers too similar to his 2019 marks. He’s 8-12 with an excessive 5.39 ERA, his losses equal Mike Minor’s for the most on the club, and his ERA is Kansas City’s worst. Two seasons ago, his 14 losses tied Jakob Junis for the team’s highest and his ERA was second-worst among the Royals’ qualified pitchers.
And as Keller’s 2019 campaign went, so goes this one—arm fatigue forced KC to shut him down in August then, and the Royals have announced they’re shutting him down now for the remainder of 2021. He’s been on the Injured List with a lat strain for three weeks; trying to pitch him again this season would have been unwise. The decision to end his season was probably easy.
The next decision the club must make about Keller should also be easy.
This is not the time for the KC Royals to give Brad Keller a contract extension.
Because Keller is arbitration-eligible again following this season and can’t test free agency until after the 2023 campaign, speculation about an early contract extension is bound to start soon. The advantages are obvious—Keller and the club can avoid the uncertainty and risks of arbitration, the Royals can buy out the first stages of his free agency, and Keller can gain some period of financial and job security.
But as much as Keller might want an extension, the time isn’t right for the franchise. Keller is, under all the circumstances, too much of a gamble. He’s enjoyed two decent seasons out of four; the second was last year, the first was his 9-6, 3.08 2018 rookie season. That inconsistency alone weighs against immediate extension.
Then there’s the career low point 2021 is for Keller. Although his eight wins are one less than his career best, and his 12 losses two fewer than his career worst, Keller’s .374 BABIP, .292 OBA, 4.31 BB/9, 10.64 H/9, and 1.21 HR/9 are all his worst single-season marks.
And what of the potential Keller has but hasn’t harnessed for more than a season at a time? Potential counts for something, but doesn’t provide adequate foundation for a long-term deal, a lesson the Royals should have learned by now.
Take, for example, the five-year, $65 million contract Danny Duffy signed with arbitration looming in January 2017. It was a deal based primarily on his 12-3 2016—the second winning season he’d had in six (the first was his 2-0 in 2013)—and the KC Royals’ obvious desire to avoid arbitration and keep him under team control. Things turned out far better for Duffy than for the club.
Even worse may be the four-year, out-of-the-blue $25 million deal the club gave Hunter Dozier before this season began. Dozier proved his power potential with 11 homers in 102 games in 2018, and 26 the following season when he hit .279, but he also posted subpar lines of .229/.278/.395 in 2018 and .209/.280/.392 last year. He’s slashing .212/.284/.377 (with 13 home runs) this season. That $25 million is a lot to pay for an occasional homer.
The KC Royals need to remember those deals when they consider what to do with Keller this winter. The wise choice is to tender him a contract and, if he doesn’t like it, take their chances in arbitration. It’s a decision that should be easy.
Unless, of course, arbitration, which occurs after the first of each calendar year, doesn’t survive baseball’s ongoing labor negotiations (the current Basic Agreement expires in December), and some other process replaces it. But even if arbitration disappears—and chances are it won’t—KC shouldn’t make a long-term contractual commitment to Keller until he’s consistently good.
Kansas City has a contract decision to make about Brad Keller this winter. It shouldn’t be difficult.