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When could Keuchel, Kimbrel be game-ready?

@feinsand
April 19, 2019

As rumors continue to swirl around Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, it’s becoming clear that the two All-Star free agents will sign with teams at some point. And once they sign, the question quickly becomes: How soon will we see them pitching in a Major League game? This question was

As rumors continue to swirl around Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, it’s becoming clear that the two All-Star free agents will sign with teams at some point. And once they sign, the question quickly becomes: How soon will we see them pitching in a Major League game?

This question was posed to a number of executives this week, and the consensus was clear: Kimbrel will have an easier time getting ready physically, but neither pitcher should be rushed into game action after they sign.

“The main thing for a free agent who has missed Spring Training and being around the day in, day out competitive grind at this level is knowing every detail about how they’ve been preparing mentally and physically to compete,” one American League executive said. “The more specifics we would have there, the more confident we would be in them being prepared to get caught up. From there, I think we can do the best to individualize and optimize a build-up plan to Major League action. It’s a tall task to just jump right in after months not in Major League games.”

Keuchel rumors | Kimbrel rumors

“I would expect Keuchel to take a month to get where we would want him to be,” a second AL decision-maker said. “Kimbrel should take a couple weeks.”

Keuchel has been throwing 95-pitch simulated games every five days to keep his arm ready, which would theoretically allow him to take the mound shortly after he signs. But the execs agreed that sim games and actual competition are different animals, so the chances of Keuchel immediately joining a rotation are slim.

“I would have to believe that both would have to spend some time facing competition to get ramped up,” a third AL executive said. “Most teams would want to see [Keuchel] pitch in at least a few Minor League games.”

Kyle Lohse, who, like Keuchel, is represented by Scott Boras, signed with the Brewers on March 25, 2013. He started a game for Milwaukee 11 days later, posting a 3.35 ERA in 198 2/3 innings that season. But Lohse is the exception, not the rule; late signees including Lance Lynn (8.37 ERA through April) and Alex Cobb (13.11) struggled out of the gate last year.

“I think a team still has to be patient,” a National League executive said. “Rushing is never a good option for a pitcher.”

The NL exec points to Greg Holland as Exhibit A. Holland signed with the Cardinals on Opening Day last season, making his debut nine days later. His stint in St. Louis was a disaster, as he pitched to a 7.92 ERA in 32 appearances before being released. This winter, Holland signed with the D-backs on Jan. 31, giving him a chance for a full Spring Training. Through his first seven games, he looks like the guy who was once one of the game’s elite closers, converting his first four save opportunities without allowing a run while striking out 12 batters in seven total innings.

“Make sure they get a real ‘Spring Training’ type of progression,” the NL exec said. “If that happens, then I think you can expect at least No. 4 [starter] performance from Keuchel with a chance to exceed that. Kimbrel is a bit trickier because being a closer is such an emotional role. Will the emotions of this offseason ... impact his ability to perform at the highest level on the field? Probably need to keep a carrot in front of him. Physically, he might be more prepared than others would be for a quicker ramp up. I’d expect solid but not elite performance from him.

“The hope is that these players are motivated by the offseason and have a chip on their shoulder to prove the industry wrong.”

Getting either pitcher anything close to a real spring will be a challenge, as teams will want to begin receiving a return on their investment as quickly as possible.

“Because of what they will receive in compensation, it will drive a more aggressive timeline to contribute,” an NL scout said. “The question of what to expect is really based off of where they are right now -- not where someone else says they are. And we don’t know where they really are. Spring Training is forever long for pitchers. The work and rest required to properly prepare is very different for them than position players.”

A second NL executive believes that even as he continues to throw sim games, Keuchel is unlikely to be ready until after the June 3-5 Draft (assuming he’s signed before then). That time frame, the executive suggests, would give the left-hander about 3 1/2 months to prove he’s still an elite pitcher.

“He’s looking at a one-year deal, so assuming he’s taking his throwing program seriously at present, I would expect him to be on a mission to dominate the second half of the season to procure that four-plus year, high-AAV deal this offseason,” the exec wrote in a text message. “I would expect him to be an inning-eating, high-floor No. 3 starter at worst. You’re talking about 20 starts at most, so I’m thinking he’s all-in on those 20 starts.”

The same exec believes Kimbrel will be able to step in and help a bullpen right away, dispelling the notion that he would need several weeks to prepare.

“I’m not sure where his head is at present, but I’d expect him to step right back in and contribute immediately," the NL exec said. "If he’s on a one-year deal as well, I think he’ll dominate with a [self-produced?] chip on his shoulder.”

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.