Is his KC Royals future bleak for this starting pitcher?

A two-time team Pitcher of the Year's struggles continue.
Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

KC Royals starter Brad Keller knows the good times. So well has he pitched during his six-season major league career that the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America has twice declared him the club's Pitcher of the Year, an award named for late and legendary Kansas City sportscaster Bruce Rice.

But Keller also knows the bad times, perhaps even more so than those award-winning good ones. He lost 14 games in 2019, 12 in 2021, and 14 again last season. Conspicuous in its inconsistency, Keller's 38-53 big league record reflects how good, and how bad, he can be.

And after Sunday, Keller is a bigger question mark for the Royals than he was before the day began.

KC Royals starting pitcher Brad Keller performed poorly again Sunday

While Kansas City closed out pre-All-Star Break play Sunday by beating Cleveland 4-1, Keller made a mess of his appearance for Triple-A Omaha. Pitching for the fourth time on an injury rehabilitation assignment with the Storm Chasers, he took just a third of an inning to hurl his minor league teammates squarely into an 8-1 loss to Gwinnett.

Keller relieved Ángel Zerpa, another Royals starter rehabilitating from injury who'd thrown five scoreless innings, to start the sixth. And that's exactly when the trouble started.

Keller immediately gave up a leadoff single and a walk. Then, after a sacrifice fly, Keller walked a batter to load the bases, hit another to break the scoreless tie he inherited, then walked two Stripers in a row to make it 3-0. At that point, Keller had allowed six of the seven batters he'd faced to reach base; Walter Pennington took over and surrendered three more runs, all of which were charged to Keller. (If it's any comfort to Keller and the Royals, two of those runs were unearned).

Yes, Pennington pitched poorly, too, but unlike Keller, he isn't specifically tasked with working his way back to the Kansas City rotation, a mission even more complicated now than it was when it began.

After Sunday, Keller's Omaha ERA is 13.50, an ugly number attributable to the seven earned runs he's allowed in the 4.2 innings he's worked since beginning his rehab assignment. (Opponents have nicked him for nine runs in all). He's also walked 13 batters (25.07 BB/9) and his 3.64 WHIP is far too high.

Little, then, is going right for him at Omaha, but it's a trend that struck Keller before right shoulder impingement forced him to the Injured List May 19. After experiencing an encouraging April (3-4, 4.36 ERA, much better numbers compared to his 6-14, 5.09 2022 record), he went 1-2, 6.23 in May and, in a miserable performance three days before landing on the IL, uncorked a pair of wild pitches, hit a batter, issued eight walks, and gave up three runs against San Diego.

So it is that Keller's recent body of work calls into question his suitability for the Royals' starting rotation. He is a pitching mess, an on-again, off-again enigma who defies prediction. Whether he'll improve measurably is unknown, as is his post-All-Star Break status. An extended Triple-A stay is probably best for the troubled hurler, but he's out of options per FanGraphs, leaving a DFA the only real path for such an assignment. But he'd have to then pass through waivers unclaimed and accept an outright assignment to Omaha.

Or the Royals could bring him back to Kansas City and a likely spot in the bullpen, where he occasionally pitched well after losing his rotation spot last season.

But whatever the club decides to do with Keller, one thing is clear: his best days as a Royal may be behind him.

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