As I compiled my list of top starting pitchers prospects for the San Diego Padres, I regrettably neglected to add Jerry Keel to the list. Partially because I failed to realize the franchise had turned him into a starter recently, and also because he just simply fell under the radar. The 22-year-old Keel was a 9th round selection in the 2015 draft out of Cal State Northridge. Another great value pick by A.J. Preller and his scouting staff and another reason to be sincerely optimistic about the future of this franchise.
I was well aware of who Jerry Keel was, as we here at EVT had the pleasure to interview him just before the season started. He was very gracious and spoke about his first experiences in pro baseball. You may read the original question and answer type interview here. Keel was very successful last season pitching out of the bullpen for Tri-City going 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 33 innings.
In doing some research before speaking to Jerry was when I realized he had been converted to a starter full-time. In his last nine appearances, Keel had started the game in each of them. This was a big step for the 6′ 6″ lefty as the club has surely gained confidence in his growth as a pitcher. The Fort Wayne TinCaps team is stacked with young starting pitchers. Names like Austin Smith, Anderson Espinoza, Jacob Nix, Jean Cosme, Logan Allen and Chris Paddack. The fact the team chose Keel to convert into a starting role speaks absolute volumes to his abilities and the fact the club recognizes them. In fact just after I conducted this interview he was promoted by the Padres to Lake Elsinore and will report back to his home state of California. Something he is very excited about as I congratulated him via text.
In talking to him before a Fort Wayne game he revealed to me that he is fine pitching either way (bullpen or starting rotation). He did say that he has always wanted to be a starter in the big leagues. “That was something I dreamed about growing up.” He proclaimed to me. But as he has matured this season, he learned a lot from his opportunities out of the pen. Now he is more than comfortable in either role and just wants to pitch. That is a beautiful thing. The man just wants to toe the rubber and doesn’t care in what capacity that is in. You want players like this in your locker room and in that daily fight against adversity. Keel will be left in the rotation for the moment as he has flourished lately in that role. In Lake Elsinore he should be given the opportunity to throw to more advanced hitters.
His numbers against left-handed batters are excellent due to his motion and slider/curve. He is currently holding lefties to a .186 batting average. However right handed hitters have been knocking him around a bit to the tune of a .298 average. We talked about that and I asked him if the organization was working with him on being effective against right handers. He told me “I was well aware coming into the year that I had some issues against righties.” He is working on his changeup and he described it as a “show me” pitch in the past, but he is getting more swing and misses now. At this point he is gaining a better feel for the pitch. With that, he will get right handed hitter out more consistently. Two starts ago against the Quad City River Bandits he went against an all right handed hitting lineup and was very effective. Keel went five inning only allowing two hits while walking two and striking out three. His best start as a professional. The man is making adjustments and that is what this game is all about.
Jerry Keel has an excellent moving fastball that he keeps down in the strike zone. In fact in his 108 minor league innings he has only allowed two home runs. I ask him about that fact and if that is something he takes pride in. He responded that he definitely prefers to throw ground balls and tells me that both home runs he gave up were on offspeed pitches. He hung a slider this season and last season he gave up a dinger on a change. Nobody has squared up his moving fastball and that bodes well for his ability to get ground ball outs. With a better defense and improved range behind him, his numbers will only get better as he is a ground ball pitcher in every sense of the word.
Jerry and I spoke about Chris Paddack and Anderson Espinoza who are new additions to the Fort Wayne team. Paddack was Jerry’s throwing partner so he saw him on a daily basis. He told me his changeup is unreal and also that Paddack has a great attitude and is fun to be around. As far as Espinoza goes, Jerry hasn’t had a ton of interaction with him, but he has charted pitches for both his games and tells me that he is very impressed with him. He told me a story about how both pitchers (Keel and Espinoza) were in the stands charting for another TinCaps pitcher during their start. While the pitcher was on the mound Espinoza would shake his head on some of the pitches he threw. He talked to Keel about the thought process and how some of the decisions the pitcher made were incorrect. Truly this kid (Espinoza) is ahead of the game when it comes to the mental aspect of the game.
In talking about manager Anthony Contreras, Jerry Keel told me about the managers preparation. The starters and the catchers are very aware of what they are doing while pitching to other teams. Contreras communicates with his team really well and does an excellent job on the preparation side of the game. That brought me to Austin Allen and the interactions he has had with the young catcher. Specifically I ask Jerry about Allen’s defensive abilities since there seems to be some minor question marks regarding him behind the dish. Jerry tells me that Allen calls an excellent game and that the catcher takes pride in earning his pitchers trust. Austin Allen is working hard to get better defensively and his bat speaks for itself.
I next wanted to get his thoughts on some members of the Fort Wayne pitching staff. I rattled off a few names and Jerry gave me a quick impression of each man and his comments are interesting to say the least.
Logan Allen: Funny kid who has great composure. Every day tries to get better. Excellent work ethic. Great head on his shoulders
Jean Cosme: Quiet but a great kid. Backs up all his teammates. Pretty fluent in English and is always there for you to pick you up
Jacob Nix: Hilarious. Great clubhouse guy. Everyone wants to be around him. Knows a lot about pitching and being effective
Chris Paddack: Funny guy. Adjusted amazingly with the team. Works extremely hard
Austin Smith: Hard worker. Great kid. Getting better
Anderson Espinoza: Knowledgeable. Smart and has an idea what he is doing. Great work ethic
There is a common theme when speaking about all these young men. They all have excellent work ethics and all are focused on success. We talked about how important that was and Jerry is certainly impressed with the maturity of these young kids. Now that Mr. Keel will be in Lake Elsinore he will get a great chance to grow as a player. Competition will be tougher and with that he must improve in all facets of the game. He understands that as this young man is wise beyond his years. At 22 he has a bright future within the organization and we will see in what capacity he ends up contributing.