Pirates draft pick Mitch Keller still exceeding expectations

The first thing Pirates second-round pick Mitch Keller did upon hearing his name called in the major league draft June 5 was hug and celebrate with his father and other loved ones at his home. The second thing he did was call his older brother, a minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization.

The third thing he did was drive to the hospital. He wanted to surprise his mother.

Keller, 18, a right-handed pitcher from Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, couldn't be with his mother, Joni, for the big moment. She was a patient at Iowa City's Mercy Hospital, where she had been for 21/2 weeks with ulcerative colitis.

"It was a bad case. We didn't know what was going on," Mitch's father, Al, said.

The family's plan was to watch the draft at the hospital with Joni. But Mitch thought of one technical issue: phone service. He would need to be able to talk to major league teams. So, at Joni's request, the Kellers watched the draft at home.

"It was certainly ... a lot of mixed emotions. You want the full family to be together to experience that, but illness doesn't take a break," Al said. "We all got pretty emotional when Mitch got called. A few tears. Lots of hugs."

Mitch's brother, Jon, was on the road playing with the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds. Immediately after Mitch was drafted, Jon called home.

"I remember taking his phone call. He was so happy," Al said. "I could tell he was pretty choked up on the phone."

Joni was just as happy. Since the draft, she has been in and out of the hospital, but is out for now. There's no doubt that her son's moment lifted her spirits.

"It's actually been helping a lot, knowing that everything worked out for him," Jon said of his mother's progress.

The Kellers know a bit about things not working out in the draft. The family already had been through two with Jon, who is four years older than Mitch.

Like Mitch, he was drafted out of high school. Expecting to be drafted in the fifth round, he didn't hear his name called until the 11th and chose to attend college instead of turning professional. Three years and two schools later, Jon heard rumors that he might be a third- to fifth-round pick in the 2013 draft. When he didn't hear his name until the 22nd round, he was disconcerted.

"I was a little rattled," he said. "I hadn't even signed up for any classes for my next year at [school]."

"Pretty crushing," Al said.

After months of deliberating, he opted to sign professionally instead of returning for his senior year. Mitch watched the whole process, knowing he was on deck. Jon might not have been chosen where he wished, but he was still drafted.

"It was really cool seeing him fulfill his dreams," Mitch said. "It just made me want to work harder to be in the same spot that he was."

Upstart prospect

The Kellers did not grow up in a baseball family. Their father stopped playing in sixth grade and didn't play any sports in high school. And although Joni was a cheerleader, she was no baseball fan.

Somehow the couple raised two baseball players.

When Mitch was 4, Al took him to a minor league Cedar Rapids Kernels game, expecting his son to last only two or three innings. But he sat quietly through all nine, glove in hand.

"I couldn't believe it," Al said. "I was probably more antsy to leave than he was."

Mitch wasn't supposed to be a top draft pick this year. He had professional potential, but as recently as this past winter, he was confident he would attend the University of North Carolina. That's when he began work with a pitching specialist in St. Louis, Brian DeLunas, to better prepare for college. The results were astounding.

In the late winter and early spring, Mitch increased his fastball velocity to 95 mph and began to hear rumors of how high he would be drafted. But he had a plan. Unless he was drafted in the first two or three rounds, he would go to college.

In the second round, Mitch's phone rang. It was the Pirates, who hadn't had any contact with him throughout the draft process. They wanted to know if he would sign in their second-round draft slot at No. 64.

"Their pick was two picks away, so I ran over to the TV to watch the draft," Mitch said.

But after Jon's saga, the Kellers were not comfortable until it was official.

"I didn't get too excited until I heard his name called," Jon said.

It was with pride and relief that Mitch was congratulated by his father, his brother over the phone, and finally his mother in the hospital.

"It was crazy," Mitch said. "I couldn't even really use my phone for 30 minutes, it was so blown up."

Seeing his brother's draft stock slip in college had an impact on Mitch Keller's decision to sign, but so did his signing bonus -- $1 million. He signed with the Pirates June 12.

"I can't really pass up this opportunity," Keller said. "The decision wasn't all that hard."

Brothers in arms

After living his entire life in Cedar Rapids, Mitch Keller will now call the unpredictable destinations of professional baseball his home. He spent one day in Pittsburgh earlier this month to sign his contract before leaving for Bradenton, Fla., to start his minor league career with the Gulf Coast League Pirates, the rookie league affiliate and lowest rung of the minor league ladder.

Mitch is listening to his older brother, who advises him to learn all he can at each level, soaking in knowledge from the experienced coaches around him.

That advice has worked for Jon. Like Mitch, who wasn't considered a high pick until a few months ago, Jon is surprising people. The 6-foot-5 power pitcher who slipped to the 22nd round last summer has a 1.55 ERA through 40 2/3 innings this season.

Although leaving Iowa wasn't easy for Mitch, he knows he'll be home in the winter and is focusing on getting acclimated in Florida.

And if he can shoot through the system, there's a chance he could play against his brother. The Orioles and Pirates affiliates at the Class A, AA and AAA level compete against each other.

"That would be probably the coolest thing ever to play against him. It would be pretty sweet to pitch against each other," Mitch said. "Growing up we've always been competitive. We'll both definitely want to win that game."

Until then, Keller is enjoying the ride. Although he'll miss out on a college experience, it will be to play the game he loves professionally. Jon, as well, could not be more grateful for that.

"All my buddies at [school] were tweeting recently that they have to hang up the spikes now," Jon said. "It made me realize that I'm lucky, me and Mitch are lucky, that we are playing a game for a living."

That's a little further than Al expected them to make it when he first took Mitch to that minor league game.

"My only hope and dream was for both boys to make the high school team and get playing time," he said. "If they could do that, that would be awesome."

But they have a history of exceeding expectations.

Hayes Gardner: hgardner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @HayesGardner.

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