KC Royals’ Brad Keller ‘shocked’ by move to the bullpen, but ‘excited’ to help the club

There’s no easy way to go from being the potential ace of a rotation, making Opening Day starts and leading the staff, to taking a backseat and moving into the bullpen. That’s the task the Kansas City Royals have handed Brad Keller, and he seems to be handling it as well as could be expected.

Keller, 27, got the news on Wednesday a day before he had been scheduled to start the series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

Instead, Keller was available out of the bullpen on Wednesday (he did not pitch) as well as an option in relief of Max Castillo on Thursday. Castillo took Keller’s place in the rotation.

“I was kind of surprised, but at the same time I was just excited about being able to just help the team,” Keller said. “I was shocked. I didn’t see it coming, but it’s part of the game. Like I said, I’m excited about the challenge.”

The Royals will take the final month and a half of the season to evaluate Keller as a potential reliever as they look forward to 2023.

If nothing else, this period will give the Royals front office and coaching staff some feel for how Keller potentially fits in a bullpen role as they begin planning for next season.

There is some thought that he could be a potential back-end of the bullpen weapon to complement the bevy of young starting pitching options they’ve got in the majors and the upper levels of their farm system.

“I’m just going to try and do whatever to help the team win,” Keller said. “They asked me what my thoughts were, and, honestly, that’s my opinion. Obviously, I would love to start. If my time to be in the bullpen is now then so be it. If that’s going to help the team win, that’s what we’re going to do.”

In 126 games (105 starts) in the majors, Keller has gone 35-48 with a 4.19 ERA, a 1.395 WHIP, 6.7 strikeouts per 9 innings, 456 strikeouts, 248 walks and an opponent’s batting average of .260 in 616 1/3 innings.

As a starter, Keller has gone 34-47 with a 4.27 ERA, a 1.407 WHIP, 6.7 strikeouts per 9 innings, a 1.84-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .262 opponent’s batting average.

Keller entered this week leading the Royals in starts (22 starts) and innings pitched (122 1/3 innings).

Last season, he tied for the team lead with eight wins despite missing the final 35 games due to a lat strain that forced him onto the injured list.

He was the team’s Pitcher of the Year for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season despite beginning the season on the IL due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. He also earned that honor in 2018.

He made all 21 of his relief appearances as a rookie in 2018. It served as a means to transition him into the majors after having not previously pitched above Double-A.

He has posted a 2.01 ERA with a 1.075 WHIP, 5.2 strikeouts per 9 innings, a 1.86-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .207 opponent’s batting average in his initial stint as a reliever. By the end of the season he’d moved into the rotation. Then he started the season opener for the Royals in 2019.

Keller said he “really enjoyed” coming out of the bullpen back in 2018, and it helped him get his feet wet and “attack guys.”

As far as developing a routine out of the bullpen, Keller said he spent Wednesday observing and watching how some of the more experienced relievers handled their preparation.

Keller’s first relief outing since being moved to the bullpen is likely to come against the Tampa Bay Rays, the franchise that traded pitcher Wade Davis to the Royals.

Davis famously transitioned from a starter to the dominant closer for the Royals and their lights-out bullpen that keyed the 2015 World Series championship.

“I know Brady will be great out of the pen,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “It’s always something that you’re curious about. How does it play? Does it look different? Is there a different psychology, knowing that it’s a shorter stint? Whether it’s the velocity, the movement, the action, all of those things have the potential to be a little different. I’m looking forward to giving him an opportunity.

“Once again, we believe it’s a place he’ll succeed and he’ll have a lot of success with.”