The Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Chicago Cubs—all clubs with a reasonable expectation of playing into October—have teamwide ERAs of 5.00 or higher. Red Sox ace Chris Sale is pitching like a skinny latter-day Jamie Moyer, the Brewers are out two of their three best relievers, and Washington’s bullpen is leakier than a porcupine’s hot air balloon. Yes, it’s only April 16, which means we’re still in the land of small-sample-size caveats, but it also means we’re 10 percent of the way through the season. Fluky or not, slow starts and roster holes now can have serious consequences down the road.
Even teams whose pitching staffs have performed better on aggregate could still use an extra arm or two. The Phillies were relying on a breakout season from 26-year-old Canadian right-hander Nick Pivetta, who while talented has struggled to get batters out thus far in 2019. Oakland just signed Edwin Jackson, the human embodiment of Someone’s Got To Fill These Innings. Everyone on the Yankees is hurt. Everyone on the Angels is hurt too. The Padres are getting away with a rotation that includes two second-year players and two rookies, one of whom, Nick Margevicius, had never pitched above A-ball before this season. And so on, and so forth. You can never have too much pitching these days, and nobody, except maybe the Astros, even has enough.
It’s therefore astounding that Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers ever, and Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young winner and two-time All-Star, remain unsigned. With only four clubs—the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees, and Astros—over the competitive balance tax threshold and league revenues at a record high, there’s money to throw at these two pitchers, and yet both remain unemployed, even as “Wow [Team X] could really use [Keuchel/Kimbrel]” has become a wry leaguewide refrain with every blown save or five-out start.
Of course, reaping the benefits of a Keuchel or Kimbrel signing isn’t as simple as writing a check and plugging a Cy Young winner or Hall of Fame closer into a pitching staff. For starters, Keuchel isn’t the best pitcher in the AL anymore, and Kimbrel isn’t the same pitcher who posted a 1.51 ERA and led the NL in saves four straight years from 2011 to 2014. It’s reasonable to be concerned about Keuchel’s declining strikeout rate or Kimbrel’s shaky postseason performance in 2018. If Keuchel were seeking something like Yu Darvish’s six-year, $126 million contract or Kimbrel were after something in the five-year, $80 million range—about what Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman got two offseasons ago—that likely will not happen.
But both are reportedly lowering their asking prices. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that Kimbrel is seeking a three-year deal for $40 million to $50 million total, while ESPN’s Buster Olney says Keuchel would sign a one-year deal under the right circumstances. Twenty-three of the 30 MLB teams have at least $17 million in space under the luxury tax threshold, which would probably be enough to absorb either pitcher and pay no tax. The Padres, who are more than $86 million under the threshold, could sign both and have enough left over to buy a beer and a hot dog for every soul who goes through the turnstiles at Petco Park this season. Three other clubs—the Dodgers, Mets, and Nationals—have between $8 million and $12.2 million in space under the threshold, and could sign one of Keuchel or Kimbrel and pay a minimal tax bill, no more than $2 million.
Both pitchers are worth shelling out for. From 2015 to 2018, Kimbrel posted a 174 ERA+ with a 14.5 K/9 ratio, and held opponents to a .156/.251/.277 batting line, with an average of 37 saves and a WPA of 3.1 per season. That’s not the production of the best relief pitcher in baseball history, but it compares favorably to what one might expect from Raisel Iglesias, Adam Ottavino, José Leclerc, and other current top-end relievers. Critically, it’s light-years better than what any team could expect from its seventh-best relief pitcher, the guy who’d be getting the bump if Kimbrel joined the club.
Keuchel struggled in 2016 and was hurt for part of 2017, but over the past two seasons he posted a 121 ERA+ in 57 starts, with an encouraging postseason record. Even after getting knocked around in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, Keuchel has a 3.31 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 51 2/3 career playoff innings. He’s no longer an ace, but for a club like the Phillies or Padres that just spent hundreds of millions on free agents yet could turn around and start a quad-A strike-thrower in a playoff game, Keuchel would be a gigantic upgrade.
These are, in no uncertain terms, attractive free agents whose asking prices have now come down not only to a level that matches their expected performance, but below that level. It’s understandable that individual teams might look at one or both of these pitchers and pass on paying their original asking price. At the risk of treating the 2018-19 free agent market with more credulity than is warranted, now that the market has settled and teams are more aware of their own shortcomings, it’s astounding that all 30 clubs are passing on not one but two pitchers who could make the difference in a playoff race. Short of a leaguewide directive to avoid free agents at all costs, there’s not a real economic reason for these pitchers to remain unsigned into mid-April.
There are other considerations, however. Keuchel and Kimbrel both received qualifying offers from their prior teams this past offseason, which would oblige any team that signs them to give up draft picks (at least a third-rounder, likely more, according to the current CBA’s Byzantine rules governing the issue) unless that club waited until after the June draft to sign either pitcher. And there’s something to be said for not panicking, or at least giving the impression of panic; we’re still only two and a half weeks into the season, and the folks who run MLB front offices didn’t get to where they are by throwing out the whole Darvish or Rick Porcello after three bad starts.
But draft pick compensation is trivial. The highest possible draft pick that could change hands in free agent compensation is the Braves’ no. 21 overall pick. Since the draft was instituted in 1965, only 35 of 54 no. 21 overall picks have reached the majors, and the median career bWAR among those players belongs to Eric DuBose, at 0.9. And that’s a worst-case scenario: The Nationals would surrender the 94th overall pick by signing either pitcher. And any club that signs either pitcher would probably be viewed as taking aggressive action to solve a problem and pursue a championship, rather than panicking over a couple bad starts. If there’s a good reason not to sign Kimbrel or Keuchel—or at least not to count on them as an immediate panacea—it’s the question of how much they’d be able to contribute, and how quickly.
After arriving at spring training, pitchers slowly ramp up their effort and workload over the course of six or seven weeks before they’re ready for Opening Day. And there doesn’t seem to be any substitute for facing live batters in preseason games; pitchers who sign midseason need time to ramp up to full fitness. Even Roger Clemens in the 2000s, when he’d show up in the middle of the season as a part-time ace for the Astros or Yankees, would need a few minor league starts to dial in before joining the big league rotation. That means Keuchel and Kimbrel, if they signed tomorrow, would not be at full strength for a few weeks, Keuchel in particular, since he’d need to ramp up to a starter’s workload.
It’s hard to project how pitchers this good would react to a late start and a long layoff because there is simply no precedent for this situation. Clemens, in addition to being one of the five best pitchers ever, pulled off his late-arriving act more than a decade ago, in his mid-40s, likely with certain other advantages unavailable to contemporary players.
The closest we have to a precedent is a set of three pitchers who signed in March of last year: starters Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn, who both signed on March 12, and reliever Greg Holland, who signed March 31. Arrieta joined the Phillies’ rotation April 8, 2018, and after a 74-pitch first start, pitched very well early in the season. He went over 100 pitches for the first time in his fourth appearance, April 25, and finished May with a 2.16 ERA. As the season went on, Arrieta’s performance fell off because of a knee injury that caused him to alter his mechanics: a 4.43 ERA in 11 starts over June and July, then a 5.40 ERA over 10 starts in August and September. But the late start didn’t seem to have much of a negative effect.
Holland and Lynn were a different story. Holland was a poor man’s Kimbrel over five seasons with the Royals before he missed all of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Holland signed a one-year deal with the Rockies that offseason and led the NL in saves in 2017, but found no suitors until the 2018 season had already started. Holland signed with the Cardinals on March 31, and nine days later made his debut, which was a disaster: 19 pitches, six strikes, five batters faced, four walks, one earned run in a third of an inning. And things scarcely got better from there. In 32 appearances over four months with the Cardinals, Holland posted a 7.92 ERA and walked almost a batter an inning.
Lynn signed March 12, debuted April 2, and also struggled out of the gate. In Lynn’s first eight starts, opponents hit .313/.422/.507, and Lynn allowed 31 earned runs in 37 1/3 innings, a 7.47 ERA.
The good news is that both Holland and Lynn eventually righted the ship. After the Cardinals released him in late July, Holland signed in early August with Washington, where he struck out more than a batter an inning, held opponents to a .130/.250/.188 batting line, and allowed just two runs in 24 appearances. On May 22, Lynn held the Tigers scoreless over 6 2/3 innings, and from that point on posted a .249/.325/.358 opponent batting line and a 3.92 ERA in 21 starts and two long relief appearances, making him an above-average American League pitcher for the Twins and Yankees over the final four months of the season.
Even though both players are working out privately and presumably preparing to return to action quickly, it’s impossible to tell how being apart from a team would affect either pitcher. Kimbrel hasn’t started a season late for any reason in his major league career. Nor has Keuchel, who’s a sinkerballer, like Arrieta, which could augur a hot start. But Lynn is also a sinkerballer, so it could mean the opposite. There’s no way to know until the groundhog sees its shadow or not.
This uncertainty could scare off potential suitors, particularly those offering one-year contracts, which seems like the likeliest outcome for Keuchel at least. If it takes Keuchel or Kimbrel three or four weeks to get into game shape, and then another six to eight weeks to iron out the bumps at the big league level, maybe it’s not worth shelling out an eight-figure contract.
But the potential for a long road to full game strength is just as compelling a reason for a competitive club to not only sign one of these pitchers, but to do it right the hell now. Teams that are off to hot starts and have internal options to cycle through—the Brewers, Mets, and Padres—might be able to wait a little while longer, but the Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox are spinning their wheels and losing ground already. If Keuchel takes as long as Lynn did to return to his peak (about 10 weeks) he’ll be rounding into form in late June, just as the pennant race is heating up. If a team signs him the day after the draft, that ramp-up period would last until August. For that matter, Holland took four months to find his command in 2018—wait until the draft and the season will be over before Kimbrel’s contributing, if a similar time frame unfolds for him.
Which brings us right back to where we started. Either of these pitchers would help almost any team, and the sooner someone makes a compelling contract offer, the better off that team will be. Waiting too long only carries further risk.
An earlier version of this story misstated that Craig Kimbrel is asking for $40 million to $50 million per year; he is asking for this amount in total.