The free agent market sure is moving fast. Of the top 20 free agents by MLBTR, thirteen have already signed a contract (though to be fair, two of those accepted qualifying offers). The top four? All gone. Not that the Cardinals were ever in the market for them, but the elite tier is gone and the elite with flaws is the highest tier of free agents right now.
Today though, I’ll be talking about two left-handed, soft-tossing starting pitchers, neither of which I think warrant an article on their own. Plus, it feels like one or both of them will get signed by the time I next write a spotlight on a starter. Dallas Keuchel, who waited out the market and signed a one-year deal in the middle of the season, and Wade Miley, who had a rejuvenating boost to his career when he signed with the Brewers before 2018.
Keuchel is why teams tank. Back in 2012, the 24-year-old did not appear to have much of a future. He managed just a 13.3 K% in AAA and walked more than he struck out in 85 MLB innings. Because the Astros had no interest in winning at the time, he got 22 more starts in 2013 - which were more impressive but still came with a 5.00+ ERA - and was implanted in the rotation for good in 2014, where he’s been an above average pitcher since. (And this is understating how good his peak was)
Except last year. Last year, the Cardinals could have picked up him for one year, and probably should have, but they escaped the rest of the year without injuries and got extremely lucky. Because they got lucky with injuries, adding Keuchel actually would’t have changed much. Keuchel had a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts, but his advanced stats were less impressive. He gave up a home run on about 24% of the balls that were hit in the air, an astoundingly high rate. With a 4.75 FIP, he was only worth 0.8 fWAR in 112.2 IP.
Miley meanwhile has mostly been a below average pitcher, with a couple good seasons thrown in the mix. His main quality appears to be reliability. He came up with the Diamondbacks in 2011 and had his first full season the next year, starting 29 games and being worth a still career high of 3.9 fWAR. He made at least 30 starts in six of the next seven years, the lone exception being with the Brewers. The only problem is that of those years, he was worth 2.0 or more fWAR twice, with last year being one of the two. And he was exactly 2 last year.
Besides stuff, the difference between the two pitchers, essentially, is that Keuchel gets a lot more groundballs than Miley does, and Miley has a career 49 GB%. Both pitchers have surprisingly similar K/BB, throughout their careers and last year. So Keuchel is an extreme groundball pitcher. Seems like he could benefit from a team with a good infield defense. (On the flipside, the Braves had an arguably better infield defense than the Cards and his numbers weren’t particularly impressive.)
What to expect for 2019? ZiPS projections just started getting released, so we don’t have that yet. Keuchel had a super high HR/FB% last year and moving to Busch would surely help, but he’s the classic extreme groundball pitcher who will usually have a high HR/FB% with a career 15.2%. Steamer ignores innings, which you can’t really do with Keuchel, whose durability has been more of a question than Miley. In 2016 and 2017, he pitched 168 and 145.2 IP, though he did manage 200 in 2018 and last year can hardly be counted. Steamer projects 188 which certainly seems too high. Given his age, I’ll give him 170, which gives him an expected WAR of 2.4.
Miley on the other hand makes a lot of starts, not so much on the innings. Last year, he made 33 starts and only pitched 167.1 IP, which is barely over 5 innings per start. Clearly he’s fifth starter material so that’s not specifically a concern. Much like Keuchel, I see no concern over the HR/9 they have and for some reason Steamer actually paid attention to Miley’s inning total giving him 147 across 28 starts. That seems fair. They have him for 1.6 WAR.
Contract-wise, MLBTR is projecting a 3 year, $39 million deal for Keuchel, which would be a ridiculously cheap contract if you believe his 2.4 projection at all. Given the trends of free agent contracts, I will take the over on this contract. Nonetheless, if he were to get that contract from the Cardinals, they would be paying him roughly $6.8 million per win, which is well below market value. I personally expect something closer to 3 years, $50 million for him, possibly another year added onto that.
Miley is projected for a 2 year, $16 million contract, which is technically even cheaper, with $5.9 million per win. Miley just turned 33 and has a history of being a below average pitcher who can eat innings, so I wouldn’t expect a higher contract for him than that. But if you’re uncomfortable with relying on your unreliable starters, he can take the mound every fifth day.
I would pass on Miley. I don’t necessarily mind the fact that he’s slightly below average, I more mind that he doesn’t really eat innings. And to be fair, I suspect some of that is because it’s Wade Miley and the manager has a quick hook on him, but that doesn’t really speak well of him either. I do think the Cardinals have internal options that could roughly approximate Miley’s production. The idea behind signing a SP is to kick Dakota Hudson out of the rotation (until the inevitable spring training injury puts him back in) and I’d rather have Hudson than Miley.
Kuechel on the other hand, assuming that projected contract? Yeah I’d be all over that. For starters, he’s an extreme groundball pitcher and the Cardinals infield defense complements that perfectly. And while he has his problems with the HR, I don’t think Minute Maid Park’s short left field porch did him any favors at all. 80 of his career 131 home runs were hit to either left field or left center field and while I don’t know how many of those were at Minute Maid (he allowed 45 overall), I imagine it didn’t help. Busch Stadium on the other hand is the fourth hardest place to hit a home run if you’re right-handed which would certainly be a huge change for Keuchel. In summary, Keuchel seems like a slightly above average pitcher ideally suited to the Cardinals’ situation to me.
But, I would be quite a bit surprised, with the way the market has moved, if Keuchel ultimately settles for a contract that low, so we’ll see what happens.