How Keuchel's 2nd go at free agency may play out

Veteran lefty turns 32 years old on Jan. 1

October 14th, 2019

Free-agent lefty Dallas Keuchel spoke to ESPN last week about his disappointing journey into the market last winter, and what he expects might happen in his second crack at it this time around. He had some pointed things to say about the experience -- not surprising for someone who didn't sign until June -- particularly about the impact of the qualifying offer:

"This whole Draft-pick compensation thing went from a throw-in for a team losing a player, to is he really a free agent now?" Keuchel told ESPN. "How can you be free if there is a Draft pick attached to you?"

He's not wrong, really. It was not good for him or Craig Kimbrel -- the other high-profile qualifying offer late-signee -- that they went into June without a job, waiting to sign until after the Draft so that the team that signed them would no longer have to forfeit a pick. And since Keuchel pitched reasonably well for the Braves, contending teams that suffered through rotation problems -- like the Phillies, Twins and Brewers -- might well wish they'd been more aggressive to acquire him, not worrying about the future ramifications of the pick. He would have helped them right now, likely more than the pick ever would down the line.

Players cannot be given the qualifying offer more than once, so Keuchel ought to have a better experience this time around. Some team looking for an accomplished mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter -- which is to say, many teams -- would do well to add him.

All that being said, however: It still might not be quite what he wants, because while it's true that what happened to him last year was always a little about the qualifying offer, it was never entirely about that. It might not even have been primarily about it.

Another way to say that is this is a matter of style. Keuchel's brand of sinker-heavy, low-velocity ground-balling (with a notable lack of strikeouts) isn't exactly on-trend in baseball right now, not with teams favoring high-velocity, high-spin strikeout artists trying to beat batters attempting to lift everything they can.

That hasn't changed from last winter; he hasn't changed from last winter; and that is potentially going to be his largest problem going forward. It's not about the qualifying offer, or the Cy Young Award and World Series ring on his shelf. It's about "do teams think a pitcher with an 88.3 mph sinker and a 19% strikeout rate can be a difference-maker over the next few years?" and that's where this becomes a tougher -- though certainly not an impossible -- sell compared to other options.

Let's try to put Keuchel in context with some of the other notable free-agent starting pitchers. For this exercise, we'll borrow from a chart we made last winter when we posited that Adam Ottavino was going to be the best free-agent reliever available, ahead of far more established names like Kimbrel, Andrew Miller and Greg Holland. (Hey, that one worked out OK!) We'll assume that Stephen Strasburg will use his opt-out, but Yu Darvish won't, and we'll show a dozen of the top free-agent starters.

We'll include 10 categories that teams are likely to be interested in and highlight the top two in each category in red, with the bottom two in blue. The version of WAR we are using comes from FanGraphs.

Now, you should notice two things immediately. The first is: Good lord, Gerrit Cole. That is a correct reaction. Good lord, Gerrit Cole!

The second is that Keuchel rates excellently in ground-ball rate, as his 60% leads not only this group but all pitchers who had 100 innings this year. That's good, though it didn't help him prevent meaningfully fewer homers than average. It's also the only red block next to his name, next to a few blue ones. He's got the lowest fastball velocity and the weakest strikeout rate. He's not the oldest, but he's not the youngest. He's middle of the pack in walks, and on the higher side in hard-hit rate and Weighted On-Base Average.

(The low innings and WAR totals in the chart are somewhat unfair to Keuchel, to be clear -- he didn't start his season until June, obviously. From July 1 on, he had the second-most innings of this dozen, and the eighth-most WAR. In 2018, he pitched 204 2/3 innings, seventh-most in baseball.)

Aside from his 2015 Cy Young season, which increasingly looks like his never-to-be-repeated career year, none of these look like an outlier caused by his late start. That's to his credit, that he was able to come in and be more or less himself right away; this is who he is, if he's healthy (and aside from two trips to the injured list in 2017, for neck trouble, he generally has been).

For example, let's look at the last two years, so we're not focusing too much on his abbreviated 2019. In that time, 128 pitchers, including Keuchel, have thrown at least 200 innings. His ranks in important rate stats are...

ERA: 3.74 (38th)
K%: 17.9% (113th)
BB%: 7.1% (46th)
OBP: .321 (77th)
wOBA: .313 (64th)
GB%: 55.9% (4th)

Which all sounds about right, especially if you look at on-base percentage and wOBA. He's likely not a Top-40 starter these days, but on a good team, he's a solid third or fourth starter -- something just about everyone could use.

That's useful, yet there's not much likelihood of a late-career breakout here, and part of what teams have become obsessed with is finding untapped talent and making it better. Look no further than Keuchel's old team in Houston and what it did with Cole after acquiring him from Pittsburgh, or how it improved Charlie Morton and Justin Verlander, and so on.

Taking a look at that list, it's not difficult to see a team -- maybe even the Astros! -- wanting to take a shot at Zack Wheeler, to see if they can get more out of him than the Mets did, or to see if they can be the ones to rescue the high-spin Rick Porcello from a disastrous 2019 in Boston. Others may prefer the chance of 100 high-quality innings from Hyun-Jin Ryu or Rich Hill, knowing an injured-list trip is highly likely, than the higher chance of 180 solid frames from Keuchel.

Instead, there may be concern about what might happen if Keuchel's velocity declines as he ages -- there are signs it's happening, and there's not exactly a great deal of cushion to drop from.

(This one might have been affected by his late start, as he was at 87.6 mph in June, slowly climbing to 88.6 mph by September. Even so, that 88.6 mph would have been his lowest since his 2012 debut.)

There's another issue, too, potentially. As Keuchel also said to ESPN: "I wanted to play for a playoff team. I had a couple of offers from teams that probably weren't going to make the playoffs, and they didn't."

We don't know if that was a hard-and-fast rule, or if it still holds true this winter. But if it does, that might rule out the idea of some likely non-contenders like the Marlins or Tigers looking to add some veteran leadership to help lead some young pitching. Even if clubs like that were likely never going to be in the mix, does that eliminate some up-and-comers who could really use him and should really be interested, like the White Sox or the Padres? Does it rule out below-.500 teams who still are trying to win in 2020, like the Angels or Reds?

Depending on how one defines "contenders," it might cut his potential market in half, though we're of course speculating.

Keuchel turns 32 on New Year's Day, and it's unclear if he'll have a new home by then. (He's represented by Scott Boras, arguably the most successful agent of all time, who has made a career out of having clients wait as long as possible.) Given Keuchel's age, profile, what you might reasonably expect him to offer over the next few seasons -- 180 innings or so of solid if unspectacular pitching -- and the fact that he'll be something like the sixth- or seventh-best starting pitcher on the market, he's not likely to net a lengthy deal this winter, at least not like Cole or Strasburg would.

But every team needs reliability and depth. The Braves were pleased to have him down the stretch, and a handful of teams probably wish they'd stepped up sooner. Wherever Keuchel ends up in 2020, he'll be somewhere he's needed -- and hopefully a whole lot sooner than he was in 2019.