So apparently the ink was dry on this deal a month ago, but MLB Network’s Jon Heyman finally brought it to my attention on Monday. Right-handed reliever Kyle Keller, who was drafted and developed by the Marlins, will play for the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball in 2022. He’s been guaranteed $1.3 million and can earn an additional $300,000 in incentives.
Keller was selected by the Fish in the 18th round of the 2015 MLB Draft out of Southeastern Louisiana University. From 2016-2019, he emerged as a nasty bullpen weapon—he tied for Miami’s farm system lead during that period by appearing in 148 games, and his 32.8% strikeout rate was second-highest among those with at least 100 innings pitched, trailing only Alex Vesia.
At age 26, Keller broke through to the big leagues, taking a spot on the depleted Marlins pitching staff after the 2019 trade deadline passed. In his debut, he allowed a home run to future Marlin Jesús Aguilar. Keller’s control wasn’t good in that initial 10-game cup of coffee, but overall, he limited the opposition to four runs in 10 2⁄3 innings pitched.
Faced with a 40-man roster crunch entering the 2019-20 offseason, the Marlins traded Keller to the Angels for unheralded teenage catcher José Estrada. Keller spent most of the COVID-shortened campaign at L.A.’s alternate training site. He excelled with the Pirates Triple-A affiliate in 2021 and earned his first extended stay in The Show from early July through season’s end. It did not go well, unfortunately: too many free passes and an extreme flyball rate are a dangerous combination.
Estrada is still with Miami, by the way. He contributed league-average batting production (100 wRC+) as the primary backstop for the Florida Complex League team in 2021. He’ll try to squeeze onto the Low-A Jupiter roster next season.
The contract terms and timing suggest to me that Keller will get the opportunity to compete for Hanshin’s closer’s role. That job was previously held by Robert Suárez, who returned to the U.S. right before the MLB lockout by signing a one-year deal with the Padres.
Some familiar names have played for the Tigers recently. Justin Bour was their everyday first baseman in 2020 and Wei-Yin Chen made a couple of starts for them last season. Speaking of familiarity, this move reunites Keller with fellow right-hander Joe Gunkel. They were Triple-A New Orleans teammates from 2018-2019.
Going over to NPB is a no-brainer business move from Keller’s perspective. He was still (at a minimum) two years away from reaching MLB arbitration eligibility, and even then, he might not have been in the position to earn as high of a salary as he’ll receive in 2022. Perhaps he finds his niche with the Japanese league, or follows in the footsteps of Suárez and many others by using it as a springboard for being taken more seriously in the states.
Good luck, Kyle!