The Astros haven’t been engaged on Dallas Keuchel in recent weeks, ESPN’s Buster Olney writes in his latest look at the free-agent left-hander’s apparently stagnant market (subscription required). The Phillies, he adds, still have interest only in a “very” short-term deal, as was reported last week. Meanwhile, La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that unless Keuchel or free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel is suddenly willing to take a one-year deal, the Twins aren’t likely to sign either pitcher three weeks into Spring Training. As for the Braves, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman wrote late last week that spring ailments for Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman haven’t been deemed concerning enough for Atlanta to pursue Keuchel.
It’s hardly an encouraging set of updates for either free agent, particularly Keuchel, whom Olney suggests is being harmed to an extent by the fact that he doesn’t fit today’s mold of hard throwers that permeate the game. Olney notes that Keuchel’s average fastball (89.3 mph) ranked 55th of 57 starters who qualified for the ERA title in 2018.
While perhaps some teams would prefer harder-throwing options, that stat doesn’t seem especially concerning when presented with further context. Keuchel’s average fastball last season was actually improved over a pair of seasons in which he was slowed by back and neck injuries in 2016-17. In fact, in Keuchel’s Cy Young-winning 2015 season, he averaged just 89.6 mph on his heater, so it’d be puzzling to see significant level of concern over that fastball velocity. Furthermore, a look at the names around Keuchel near the bottom of the fastball velocity leaderboard includes quality arms such as Marco Gonzales, Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks. Patrick Corbin, meanwhile, ranked only 43rd among those 57 qualified starters at 90.8 mph, and he secured a six-year contract that promises him $140MM. That deal came at a younger age and on the heels of a better season, clearly, but the contract still runs counter to the idea that teams will only pay for premium velocity.
None of that is to say that Keuchel isn’t without red flags, of course. The lefty’s strikeout percentage dipped from 21.4 percent in 2017 to 17.5 percent in 2018 (7.7 K/9 vs. 6.7), and his swinging-strike rate fell from 10.9 percent to 8.3 percent. His ground-ball rate of 53.7 percent, while well north of the league average, also represented a substantial step back from 2017’s 66.8 percent mark and from his overall career mark of 58.8 percent. All of that surely sets off some alarms for interested teams, but Keuchel was nevertheless a quality starter in 2018, as has been the case for several years. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference suggest he’s been worth 18 wins above replacement over the past five seasons — including a combined six or more WAR over his past two campaigns.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that virtually any team in baseball would be improved by swapping out Keuchel for its current weakest starter, but as is always the case in free agency, the financial element plays a significant role. It seems quite likely that some clubs that had interest in Keuchel and Kimbrel early this winter balked at the duo’s reported nine-figure asking prices and went on to spend their money elsewhere. Now, even if those asking prices have come down, some previously interested teams may simply not have ownership permission to spend significant dollars on another free agent. Both pitchers also rejected qualifying offers, meaning a team signing either former All-Star would be subject to the forfeiture of at least one draft pick (and potentially some international bonus pool space).
It’ll be worth keeping an eye on injuries to prominent pitchers throughout the league in the coming days to see if a new window opens. Clayton Kershaw has been battling a shoulder issue, for instance. The Braves, as previously mentioned, have multiple starters who have been dealing with injuries thus far in camp. The Cardinals may be without Carlos Martinez to open the season. Further injuries will surely arise elsewhere, although the longer Keuchel and Kimbrel wait, the more questionable it is whether either will be ready to pitch in a big league game come Opening Day.