It’s March 13. Do you know where Dallas Keuchel is? If you guessed “Sitting at home and waiting for a major league team to sign him,” you’re (sadly) correct. Despite Opening Day being just two weeks away (and only a single week, if you’re the A’s and Mariners, soon off to Japan), Keuchel remains without a team for the 2019 season. He’s not alone in that regard—Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, and several others are also looking for new homes as well—but, as arguably the best starter who was available on this winter’s free-agent market, it’s rather amazing that no one has secured his services.
For the 31-year-old Keuchel, his first foray into free agency has been a bummer. After declining the Astros’ qualifying offer in November, the lefty has been connected to the Nationals, Reds, Braves, Phillies, and Padres, with he and agent Scott Boras reportedly seeking a five-year commitment. Yet one by one, those teams have fallen away, and Keuchel’s chances of getting a long-term deal have gone with them. Since spring camps opened, the only news we’ve gotten on Keuchel has been reports of teams willing to give him nothing more than a one- or two-year contract.
What has to sting is that, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Keuchel rejected a five-year, $90 million extension from the Astros early in the 2016 season—just off his Cy Young-winning ’15 campaign. At the time, that was a no-brainer, as he looked likely to make easily that much once he became a free agent.
But since being named the AL’s top hurler thanks to a league-high 20 wins and 232 innings as well as a 2.48 ERA and 157 ERA+, Keuchel has hit the skids. His 2016 was bad (a 4.55 ERA and 86 ERA+) and injury-pocked (just 168 innings pitched). His 2017 was better (a 2.90 ERA and 141 ERA+) but abbreviated (145 2/3 innings). And his 2018 was durable (204 2/3 innings) but unexceptional (a 3.74 ERA and 108 ERA+—essentially league average). Add to that his age and his lack of velocity (his four-seam fastball averaged just 89.3 mph last year), and you can see why teams aren’t exactly lining up the block to sign him.
Still, while Keuchel may not resemble his 2015 self, he still offers plenty of value. Though he doesn’t get many swings and misses—his whiff rate of 8.3%last year was well below the league average of 10.7—he excels at getting weak contact. Per Fangraphs, 22.4% of the contact against him last year ranked as soft—fifth best among all qualified starters. His ground-ball percentage of 43.7%, meanwhile, was tops in that same group. Keuchel may be a stereotypical veteran crafty lefty, but he’s very good at being that player. And if nothing else, he gobbles up outs, breaking the 200-inning mark twice in the last four years.
That should be enticing enough for plenty of would-be contenders, especially those with holes in their rotation. Atlanta, the defending NL East champion, doesn’t even have a full starting five at the moment thanks to Mike Foltynewicz’s sore right elbow. San Diego, fresh off of signing Manny Machado, is planning on handing starts to unproven and unimpressive arms like Bryan Mitchell and Eric Lauer. Milwaukee seems content to go forward with Chase Anderson (a 104 ERA+ last season), Zach Davies (86) and Freddy Peralta (96) or with untested youngsters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. The Phillies, who are firmly in the World Series mix after adding Bryce Harper, have a weak back of the rotation and little to no depth. The 97-win A’s have Mike Fiers and his career 100 ERA+ starting their first game, and he’s far and away their best healthy starter. And so on.
Keuchel isn’t a perfect fit for all of those teams, nor would he be an immediate ace wherever he signed. But he’s easily a preferable option than the pitchers that a host of teams will roll out on a regular basis, and all he costs is money and a (likely minor) draft pick since he rejected Houston’s qualifying offer. Yet as we’ve already seen time and again this offseason, money seems to be the thing that teams are most reluctant to part with.
You can argue that, in today’s MLB, a long-term deal for a 31-year-old who doesn’t throw hard or strike batters out is a poor investment. But while it’s unlikely that Keuchel is going to age particularly well, he remains a boost for most pitching staffs this year and probably in 2020 as well. The problem is that with so much of the league simply not trying, good teams have little incentive to pay for the upgrades that lead to the marginal wins normally necessary to secure playoff spots. That calculus didn’t really affect the likes of Harper or Machado, but it’s devastating for players like Keuchel, who are true “win-now” additions. And even though there are a few teams who fit the bill of “contenders who need to create some separation” (see: the entire NL East), those same teams hold all the leverage. It’s not as if Keuchel can start his own league. Either he buckles and takes their short-term offers, or he holds out indefinitely.
The problem for Keuchel, though, is the longer he waits, the harder it’s going to be for him to have an effective 2019. We saw this play out last year with a handful of starters who, thanks to that winter’s free-agent freeze, didn’t sign until well into spring training, including Jake Arrieta (Mar. 12), Lance Lynn (Mar. 12), Alex Cobb (Mar. 21), and Bartolo Colón (Mar. 26). Arrieta had his worst full season since his Orioles days, while Lynn, Cobb and Colón spent most of 2018 getting blasted by opposing lineups.
There are plenty of factors at play there. Arrieta has been on the decline since his Cy Young-winning 2015 season (just like Keuchel, as it turns out), and Colon was entering his age-45 (!) season after a brutal ‘17. But Lynn and Cobb were coming off strong years with the Cardinals and Rays, respectively; there was no reason to predict a down year for either (or for either to linger on the market). Yet, all of them struggled, and in those cases, a dramatically shortened spring training was probably partially to blame. Spring results mean nothing most of the time, but those six weeks and exhibition games are still crucial for pitchers to build up arm strength.
Does that same fate await Keuchel once he finds a new team? We’ll have to wait and see. It’s patently unfair, though, that because of teams’ reluctance to pay him what he’s worth, his 2019 season may already be doomed before it even begins.