Late in the evening on June 6, more than a third of the way through the 2019 MLB regular season, the league’s offseason finally ended. The Atlanta Braves agreed to terms with the last big remaining free agent, left-handed pitcher Dallas Keuchel, reportedly signing him to a one-year contract for about $20 million. Prorated for the remaining time left in the season, it comes to about $13 million. Keuchel will have a physical Friday, with his first warm-up start scheduled at Triple-A Gwinnett the day after.
Keuchel, a Scott Boras client, won’t get the long-term, nine-figure deal he originally sought, but will get another crack at free agency next offseason at age 32, without the millstone of a qualifying offer around his neck. Last offseason Keuchel turned down a qualifying offer—a one-year, $17.9 million contract tender—from the Astros in favor of testing the open market. In a comically cold free-agent landscape, that qualifying offer was just another excuse for teams not to sign the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, as doing so before the draft would have cost the team that signed him a pick. He’s been in free-agent limbo ever since.
Even after the draft ended this week and any team could have signed Keuchel without sacrificing a pick, the Yankees attempted to peg the left-hander’s value to the qualifying offer. New York was reportedly willing to give Keuchel $17.9 million, or $11.5 million when prorated over the remaining 60-odd percent of the season. By rejecting that offer and signing with Atlanta, Keuchel not only made himself an extra $1.5 million, but also ensured that he’ll get to keep his signature beard.
For that $13 million, the Braves add a reliable, playoff-tested starting pitcher to a rotation that’s long on talent but short on durability and experience. Atlanta’s pool of potential starting pitchers is outrageously talented, but extremely green; it’s been subject to inconsistent performance, and as the season goes on it could face myriad workload restrictions. Even two of the erstwhile old hands in the Braves’ rotation, 27-year-old Mike Foltynewicz and 28-year-old Kevin Gausman, have ERAs hovering around 6.00. Rookie Kyle Wright allowed 11 earned runs in 14 innings before being sent back down to the minors, and while 25-year-old lefty Max Fried had a 1.38 ERA after his first six appearances, he has a 5.18 ERA in his past eight. Both are incredibly talented former top-10 picks who will probably turn things around eventually. The way things were going, though, one of them was going to have to make a playoff start if Atlanta reached that point.
Keuchel is the diametric opposite of the archetypal Braves pitcher, a 31-year-old lefty who has impeccable command and a track record of performing well under pressure. He isn’t the ace he was during his award-winning 2015 campaign, but since then he’s averaged 173 innings and 28 starts per year, with an ERA+ of 107. Since 2016—a sample that doesn’t include his Cy Young season but does include the disastrous campaign that followed it—Keuchel has the fourth-best ground ball rate among the 140 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings in that time. He has a better-than-average walk rate and fields his position well.
In short, the Braves aren’t signing Keuchel and expecting him to be the dynamic leader of their rotation—though he’s come through spectacularly in the clutch as recently as Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS. The Braves are signing Keuchel because they need a steady hand to plug into the lineup once every five days without causing drama, and hands don’t come much steadier than the former Arkansas Razorback.
Adding Keuchel, it must be noted, comes with the bonus benefit of keeping him away from other NL contenders, namely the Phillies and Cardinals, with a need for help in their rotations. The former leads Atlanta by two games in the NL East race; the latter trails the Atlanta by one game for the second NL wild-card spot. These are the fine margins by which the National League pennant race will be decided. The big question for the Braves now is whether adding Keuchel in June will be enough, or if they’ll come to wish that they had him since Opening Day.