With the 2019 Major League Baseball season officially kicking off on Wednesday at the Tokyo Dome between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics, baseball season is officially back. We saw some very interesting moves take place this winter; some of which may and others which may not end up being key moves for teams in the long term.
Some of the more interesting moves to keep an eye on were Michael Brantley signing with the Houston Astros, James Paxton being traded from the Mariners to the New York Yankees, Bryce Harper signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, Manny Machado signing with the San Diego Padres, and the tandem of Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano being traded from the Mariners to the New York Mets.
However, with spring training coming to a close within the next 10 days for all teams, some potentially key free agents are still available on the market. Names like Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, Boone Logan, Ryan Madson, and Denard Span are players who could be contributing pieces to teams needing extra depth to make a deep playoff run.
One name that I did not mention is a player who is surprisingly still a free agent on March 19th. I’m talking about, of course, the 2015 American League Cy Young Award Winner and 2017 World Series Champion, Dallas Keuchel.
It's hard to think that a pitcher who has had as dominant a four-year span as Keuchel did between 2014-2017 is still available at this late juncture of spring training. Keuchel’s agent Scott Boras released a statement on Sunday regarding Keuchel’s preparations being made for this season by going through the offseason by himself saying that Keuchel’s, “going through a full spring training just like [Kyle] Lohse did.” Unlike with Lohse who did not sign with the Brewers until March 25th, 2013, the price that a team will have to pay for Keuchel will be significantly steeper.
When Lohse signed with the Brewers, he was given a three-year, $33M contract. Keuchel will not be nearly that cheap. Back in November, Keuchel turned down a $17.9M qualifying offer from the Houston Astros.
What this means is that Keuchel became tagged with the heavy burden of first-round compensation attached to his name if he did end up signing with a team other than the Astros.
In today’s MLB, where most teams have begun recently to try and build around their farm systems rather than spend ludicrous amounts of money in free agency, giving up a first-round draft pick for a 31-year-old pitcher is a lot more than most teams, especially small-market ones, would be willing to give up.
One team who is reportedly in this conundrum are the Atlanta Braves, who despite their interest in Keuchel, are very reluctant to give up a potentially important draft pick for him.
Another major problem with signing Keuchel outside of having to surrender a draft pick is the contract that Keuchel wants. At 31, I doubt that the former 7th round picks out of Arkansas would be willing to sign a one or two-year contract offer and will be looking for a longer, multi-year offer.
The next question is what kind of yearly salary is Keuchel looking for? In 2018, Keuchel’s salary with the Astros was $13.2M. After rejecting a qualifying offer worth $5.7M more than his 2018 salary, are Keuchel and his agent, Scott Boras, waiting until a team potentially would offer between $20-$25M per year? If so, we may not see Keuchel even put on a Major League Baseball uniform this season.
In 2018, Keuchel had a solid season for the Astros. Not only did Keuchel have a career high in starts made (34), but he also had the highest ground ball percentage among MLB pitchers at 53.7%, and the lowest fly ball rate among MLB pitchers at 24.4%.
What hurts Keuchel is that he surrendered a career high in hits last season with 211. Keuchel had never given up more than 187 hits in a season before, and that was back in 2014. Keuchel’s WHIP (1.314) was also the highest it has been since 2013, which was Keuchel’s first full MLB season (1.5346).
For reference, Keuchel’s WHIP during his 2015 CY Young season was a career low 1.017. Keuchel’s RA9 (Runs Allowed per 9 Innings Pitched) also jumped nearly full run from 2017 (3.09) to 2018 (4.05).
Keuchel also had his lowest quality starts percentage since his first full season at just 59% (compared to 70% in 2017). Keuchel's balls in play percentage was a career-high 32.1%. This means that batters are now beginning to make more contact with Keuchel’s pitches than in previous seasons.
Top that with the fact the Keuchel rarely even throws 90 miles per hour on even his fastball, those numbers should be expected to increase every season for the rest of Keuchel’s career. Keuchel also had a swinging strike percentage of just 14.4%, his lowest since his 2012 season.
In Keuchel’s 2015 season, his swinging strike percentage was 17.7%; meaning that batters are now making more and more contact with Keuchel’s stuff, further lowering his potential contract value.
While it is hard to predict exactly when Keuchel will finally sign with a major league team, one would have to think that he will be signed before April. Keuchel may not like it, but at this point taking a one-year contract to prove to the rest of the MLB that he still has the stuff that made him a great pitcher might honestly be his best move available.
Unfortunately, with the loss of a high round draft pick attached to him, teams might not see the value in adding a diminishing skilled Keuchel for one season at the cost of a draft pick.
Keuchel’s best move at this point would be to re-sign with the Astros on a 1-year contract, but we will see what happens in the coming days whether a resolution will be made for one of the great left-handed starting pitchers of this decade.