I was skeptical when teams said that draft pick compensation was the reason why Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel remained unsigned. It just reeked of teams making excuses for not spending money that they had plenty of, money which they could spend without affecting future signings, or the bottom line in a meaningful way. It was not the first excuse teams went with, either. Furthermore, while that excuse made more sense as the draft approached, it was shakier earlier on, as discussed by FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards.
Regardless of whether or not the fear of losing out on a draft pick was sincere, both Kimbrel and Keuchel have signed, post-draft, the latter with Kimbrel’s former team, the Braves. It is a measly one-year, $13 million deal, though it looks a bit better when considering that it is not for a full season. As for when Keuchel will be ready, it could be as soon as this Thursday, as he has been pitching in simulated games since the start of the season. While this deal is probably an order of magnitude less than what Keuchel was looking for in terms of dollars, it will allow him to hit free agency again without having to worry about draft pick compensation being attached to him, but he will be turning 32 years old during the offseason.
One excuse that teams were using to knock Keuchel specifically was the lefty’s lack of velocity and spin rate, to say nothing of the fact that he is on the wrong side of thirty. As discussed in detail in the excellent recently released book, The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik write that teams are emphasizing velocity and spin rate more than ever. While I can’t deny that those are valid reasons to be hesitant to sign Keuchel to a big deal, you’ll forgive me if I decline to give teams the benefit of the doubt.
Keuchel is far from the the pitcher he was when he won the AL Cy Young award in 2015, but he is still a solid mid-rotation pitcher. Last year he had a 4.05 RA9 while accumulating 2.6 WAR, and he had a 3.09 RA9 the year before while accumulating 4.2 WAR in just 145 2⁄3 IP. He has very good command, which is critical for someone to get by with his lack of velocity, but as you are probably well aware, his strikeout rates have always been subpar. Last year that dropped all the way to 17.5 percent. It was the fourth-worst rate among qualified pitchers last year, and if we drop the innings limit to 150, he is still the eighth worst.
It is worth noting that while Keuchel’s RA9 has varied quite a bit over the past three seasons, his DRA has not. It has gotten progressively worse, though.
Even given his age and everything I have laid out here, Keuchel is still good, and worth, bare minimum, the Jake Arrieta contract. He is an upgrade over the back of any competitive team’s rotation. The Phillies and Braves are duking it out for the division in a race where one win could make all the difference in the world, and their rotations rank roughly in the middle of the pack by park-adjusted RA9.
With the Phillies, Zach Eflin is doing very well with a 3.25 RA9, but one has to wonder how long that is going to last given his track record, high strand rates, and poor strikeout rates. Aaron Nola has disappointed so far, and Arrieta has not exactly excelled. It is hard to criticize a team’s spending when they recently signed Bryce Harper to a $330 million deal, however, the fact of the matter is that the Phillies’ $144.5 million payroll is just barely above the league average. The Mariners and Rockies have higher payrolls than they do. Keuchel would have been helpful not just by improving the rotation and adding depth, but also by keeping him away from their divisional rivals. I would argue that is easily worth $13 million. Honestly, that number is nothing to a competitive team.
Mike Soroka is pitching out of his mind, and Julio Teherán and Max Fried are pitching well too. There is a bit of a drop-off after that, especially at the fifth starter slot which has been a black hole. Keuchel should conservatively be a one-win upgrade to the rotation, though I think it will be closer to two.
That being said, the Braves don’t come out faultless here. What if Keuchel ends up pitching well and the Braves end up losing the division by a game or two? Those are wins they might have had if they had signed Keuchel at the beginning of the season. I do not want to downplay the importance of the draft, but the Braves have one of the best farm systems in baseball. They could have afforded to lose a pick.
The Braves are two games back of the Phillies at the time of this writing, but FanGraphs still has them as the slight favorites to win the division. This signing should help, but it is a shame that it came at the cost of Keuchel losing a third of a season and receiving a fraction of what he is worth. Hopefully he will pitch well this season and get the contract he deserves.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.