Xavier’s Keller Faces Big Baseball Decision

By Jeff Johnson and Josh Christensen, Reporters

CEDAR RAPIDS – It wasn’t really resignation out of Mitch Keller. That has a negative connotation to it.

It was more like full awareness.

“I know it’s going to be pretty hectic for the next four weeks,” the Cedar Rapids Xavier senior said.

Whatever happens in the next month or so, Keller’s baseball career is in good shape. He’ll either be pitching professionally with some major league organization or finishing his prep career at Cedar Rapids Xavier, with the comfort of knowing he’ll be at the University of North Carolina for the next three years.

Those are great options. As he puts it, he can’t lose.

“It’s all wide open right now,” he said Friday. “I’d probably say if the pick and money are right, then I’ll definitely sign to play pro ball. You can’t really pass up that amount of money. It’s life changing. But I’m taking it as a win-win situation either way. North Carolina is a great school, a great program. I’m excited about both ways.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander has seen his pro stock rise significantly in the past six months or so. He was always on scouts’ radars but even more now after a spike in velocity of what he says is five miles per hour to the mid-90s.

Keller credits traveling to St. Louis seven straight weekends with his father, Al, to work with a guy named Brian Delunas. A couple of delivery tweaks here and there and emphasis on driving more off his back leg has been the key, he said.

Perfect Game USA of Cedar Rapids has Keller projected a second or third-round pick in the MLB Draft in early June, perhaps the top prep arm in the Midwest. Even at the very end of the third round, you’re looking at a signing bonus of at least a half-million dollars, and it’s standard for clubs to include covering future college costs in a contract with a high-school draft pick, in case a pro career does not work out.

“I’m kind of hoping second or third round, like they’re saying,” Keller said. “After that, it would kind of have to be negotiable. We’d have to negotiate pretty good to get a deal done.”

Keller said he has had contact with all 30 MLB clubs, including “15 to 20” in-home visits. He has four more scheduled next week.

Jason Wood of St. Louis is his “advisor” and the full-fledged agent of his older brother, Jon, who is pitching for low-Class A Delmarva after signing with the Baltimore Orioles last June. Jon Keller was drafted in the 11th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2010 when he was a senior at Xavier but didn’t sign.

He spent two seasons at the University of Nebraska, then transferred to the University of Tampa and was the winning pitcher in last year’s Division II national championship game.

“It was pretty crazy going through (the draft) once with my brother. Having that experience has helped us a lot,” Mitch said. “When he went through it in high school, they didn’t have the slot money, so the draft was completely different. You didn’t know how much money you were going to get. But, now, depending on what round and everything, you know basically what you’re going to get.”

Jon Keller’s career actually is somewhat of a cautionary tale for his younger brother. Because of concerns over the health of his elbow, he slid to the 22nd round of last year’s draft, still receiving a signing bonus of $100,000 but not the money he could have had coming out of high school.

That is not lost on Mitch.

“Whenever I talk to him about it, he says to sign pro ball because you never know what’s going to happen,” Mitch said. “You could get hurt, things could not go your way, like what happened to him.”

Keller will participate in Perfect Game’s National Pre-Draft Showcase at Veterans Memorial Stadium on May 18 and should get in a couple of starts for Xavier prior to the draft, which is June 5-7.

Then … well, we’ll see.

“The scout that came to the house last night said ‘You’re next two starts are going to be your biggest ones,’” Keller said. “ You’ve got national scouting directors coming in, the highest guys coming in to see you. They tell me if I impress enough, I could go as high as the first round.

“But I know they’ve been there. They’ve been around for every game I pitched in the spring, so I’m kind of used to it by now. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”

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