This was an inevitability once the White Sox designated Keuchel for assignment over the weekend. The southpaw is still due a bit under $13MM in 2022 salary, plus a $1.5MM buyout on a 2023 club option. No team was going to claim Keuchel and assume that tab, so it was a formality that he’d clear waivers and hit free agency.
Now that he’s available on the open market, the 34-year-old would have more appeal to other clubs. The White Sox will remain on the hook for virtually all of Keuchel’s remaining guaranteed commitments. Any team that signs him would only owe him the prorated portion of the $700K minimum salary for any time he spends in the majors, which would be subtracted from Chicago’s financial outlay.
With no financial risk attached, it seems likely Keuchel will find a major league deal somewhere. Still, that the White Sox cut him loose in spite of a questionable back-of-the-rotation mix points to the extent of the struggles the 2015 AL Cy Young award winner has experienced over the past couple seasons. Signed to a three-year, $55.5MM guarantee over the 2019-20 offseason, Keuchel posted a sterling 1.99 ERA over 11 starts during the shortened 2020 season. Since the beginning of the 2021 campaign, however, he’s been among the least effective starters in the game.
Keuchel stayed healthy and made 32 appearances (30 starts) for the division-winning ChiSox last year, but his rate stats were below-average. He posted a 5.28 ERA — his first season allowing even more than four earned runs per nine since 2016 — across 162 frames. Even at his best, Keuchel has never missed many bats, but he saw his strikeout rate tumble to 13.2% last year. His 54.9% ground-ball rate was still a well above-average mark, but the two-time All-Star had induced worm burners on more than three-fifths of batted balls at his peak.
Those worrisome trends have only been exacerbated this year. Keuchel has a 7.88 ERA through eight starts, the second-highest mark among 137 pitchers with 30+ innings. He has the second-worst strikeout/walk rate differential among that same group, with matching 12.2% marks. Keuchel’s grounder rate is also down a few more points (albeit still strong), at 50.8%. That slow start led the White Sox to cut bait, although another team is likely to give him an opportunity based on his pre-2021 track record.
Keuchel, of course, was one of the game’s best pitchers between 2014-20. He posted four sub-3.00 ERA campaigns during that time as a preeminent ground-ball specialist, helping the Astros to a strong run of success. It’s unlikely he’ll return to that form at this stage of his career, but another club could still see him as a capable back-end option — particularly if he can get his grounder rate to tick back up a few points in a new environment.
The White Sox have had a top-heavy starting rotation this season, which was to be expected. Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito have all performed well. Keuchel and offseason signee Vince Velasquez have struggled, while veteran Johnny Cueto has been effective through three starts. Bolstering the back end figures to be a trade deadline focus for general manager Rick Hahn and his staff if the team remains in contention over the coming months, particularly if Velasquez continues to scuffle while holding down the final spot.