Only 13 pitchers have thrown 750 innings with a sub-3.30 ERA over the last five seasons, and one of them, Dallas Keuchel, is now a free agent.
Keuchel matured through Houston's lean years and then helped anchor their rotation through three postseason runs and a World Series title. Now, it's time for Keuchel to cash in, but the southpaw's market has yet to fully take shape. We know every team could use a quality starter; the question is which ones will pony up the money for one of Keuchel's caliber. The general consensus for Keuchel's new contract is somewhere around four years and $80 million, making him the second-most expensive pitcher after Patrick Corbin. There's also Draft-pick compensation tied to Keuchel since he rejected the Astros' one-year qualifying offer.
Teams are paying for the future, of course, and Keuchel's upcoming 31st birthday on New Year's Day will be a consideration. When projecting Keuchel's next few seasons, here's what stands out:
Keuchel is still a master of weak contact …
Statcast™ classifies three types of batted balls as "poor contact" most favorable to pitchers, and only six starters induced a higher rate of such contact in 2018 than Keuchel. Most of those balls were "topped" (hit straight into the ground), and Keuchel has finished within the league's top 10 starters in that category in each of Statcast™'s first four seasons. Keuchel racks up grounders, and he also limits home runs; his .77 homers allowed per nine innings since '14 is sixth-best among that same group of starters with 750-plus innings.
… But there are some warning signs
Keuchel is still a ground-ball specialist, but as MLB.com's Mike Petriello recently noted, no full-time starter suffered a bigger decline in his grounder rate from 2017 to '18 than Keuchel (though his MLB-best 68 percent rate two years was off the charts). Keuchel has never been a power pitcher with his high-80s sinker, but his strikeout rate also fell off by nearly 4 percent last year. He's a pitcher who's made a living on hitting his spots, but the lefty's margin for error will likely get smaller as time goes on.
So, despite some minor signs of erosion, Keuchel is still someone who's proven he can eat innings, keep the ball in the yard and take the ball in big games. Which teams have the strongest combination of need and willingness to spend on that kind of starter?
Both MLB Trade Rumors and a panel of MLB Network Radio experts picked Washington as Keuchel's most likely landing spot, and it's easy to see why. First, Keuchel is represented by superagent Scott Boras, who has negotiated a handful of big signings with Nationals ownership in the past. Washington went over the competitive balance tax in 2018, but figures to have payroll flexibility this winter with a handful of names -- including, potentially, Bryce Harper -- coming off the books. If Harper doesn't return to Washington, there's a chance the Nationals could have room to sign both Keuchel and Corbin.
We've seen the Nationals try to build around stacked rotations in the past, so adding Keuchel to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg would be a page from their own playbook. Washington will be plenty motivated after underwhelming to an 80-82 record last season.
A return to Houston is probably the best outcome for Keuchel, seeing as he'd be returning to a World Series contender and the team he's known his entire career. Keuchel also appears plenty comfortable pitching in Minute Maid Park (which may be turning into a pitcher's park), seeing how he owns a career 3.09 ERA and has held hitters a .635 OPS there as opposed to 4.27 and .747 marks on the road.
With Lance McCullers sidelined by Tommy John surgery and Charlie Morton potentially departing via free agency, the Astros' rotation suddenly isn't as big a strength as it was (to an historic degree) in 2018. Bringing Keuchel back -- for slightly more average annual value than the one-year, $17.9 million Houston already offered him -- could help the reigning AL West champs keep that strength intact.
It's no secret the Reds need significant help in their rotation: No Cincinnati starter has paired at least 150 innings with a sub-3.50 ERA since Johnny Cueto and Alfredo Simon in 2014, and there's a good chance neither of those former Reds throw a single pitch next season. Cincinnati has tried to develop starters from within in recent years, but Anthony DeSclafani's injury troubles and Luis Castillo's regression last season marked the organization's latest setbacks in those efforts.
The Reds need to go out and acquire pitching talent if they hope to compete soon, and there's indications that new general manager Nick Krall and president of baseball operations Dick Williams will be aggressive this offseason. Keuchel's expected contract may be a tad out of Cincinnati's comfort zone, but inking the left-hander would help the Reds show their fans (and potentially other free agents) that they're serious about taking the next steps. Keuchel's propensity for grounders also makes him an ideal free-agent target for homer-happy Great American Ball Park.
The same reasons the Angels should be players for Zack Greinke via trade apply here with Keuchel. Los Angeles hasn't found starters who can take the ball every fifth day, and Keuchel has averaged 190 innings over the past five seasons while never missing time for anything more than a pinched nerve in his neck. Ace Garrett Richards is already out for 2019 after receiving Tommy John surgery, and the Angels' innings leader last year, Andrew Heaney, compiled a 4.15 ERA that was exactly league average. Shohei Ohtani just underwent Tommy John surgery, too, and likely won't pitch again until 2020.
With two years left to convince Michael Trout to stay in Anaheim, the clock is ticking for the Angels to return to the postseason. They can't do that without a quality frontline starter.
They've already swung a deal with the Mariners for James Paxton, but the Yankees might add another starter this offseason. Much like with Cincinnati, Keuchel's skillset could help him thrive at an extreme hitter's park. In fact, we've already seen him do it: In seven career starts at Yankee Stadium (including two in the postseason), the lefty owns a 2.68 ERA with 50 strikeouts, 10 walks and zero home runs allowed. That's about as brilliant a Bronx resume as any opponent could compile, and the pinstripes could upgrade their rotation by taking away a pitcher who's tormented them through the years.