Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel have been discussed ad nauseam since they both headed into the 2019 season without a team.
And honestly, they should be.
Both Keuchel and Kimbrel are serviceable pitchers at the very least. That no team was willing to pay for them speaks volumes about the state of labor relations in Major League Baseball right now.
But, at this point, teams have won in the back-and-forth, pushing the two pitchers past the draft and erasing their ties to compensatory picks.
Kimbrel has already been picked up. He’ll now be a Cub through at least the 2021 season, with a vesting option for 2022.
Ignoring the validity of the demand, Kimbrel had announced he was looking for a multi-year, nine-figure deal headed into the offseason. His three-year contract he inked with Chicago has $45 million in guaranteed money, with a $10MM/$16MM/$16MM payout structure and a $1 million buyout on the 2022 club/vesting option.
Kimbrel was very willing to settle.
The rival Cubs have struggled with a floundering bullpen, saw an opportunity to improve and pounced. From his first full season in 2011 through today, Kimbrel is third in reliever fWAR with 17.5, behind Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. To reiterate, that’s including the entirety of 2019 that he’s been off the mound. Kimbrel’s AAV is comparable to that of Andrew Miller’s.
Keuchel seems willing to settle, too. Buster Olney reported on May 28 that Kuechel’s winter ask of a six- to seven-year deal with an AAV in the $25MM to $30MM range has fallen to a willingness for a one-year deal pro-rated at around $18MM. Not only is he now removed from an attachment to a 2019 draft pick, he wouldn’t be eligible for a qualifying offer, meaning no obligation to make a contract offer or risk losing a 2020 pick.
I’m sure plenty are tired of hearing about Keuchel, or don’t think he’s a fit for the club. But that’s not the case. In fact, for a club that so often spoke about the importance of 2019 and a “win now” mentality this offseason, passing on Keuchel would be an obvious example of words failing to line up with actions. Here’s why.
He’s an instant upgrade in the rotation
The Cardinals rank 27th in the majors in starting pitching fWAR, with 2.1 across all starters. Only the Angels, Orioles and Giants are worse. At this point, the Angels don’t even have a starter who qualifies for league leader categories.
You may think there’s just one player dragging down the team total. Genesis Cabrera and Michael Wacha are the lowest, with -0.1 fWAR. The only one with an fWAR of 1.0 or greater is Jack Flaherty, right at that mark.
Keuchel has been worth at least 2.3 fWAR in each of the past five seasons. Last year, his total was 3.3. He pitched almost exactly to expectations, with an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.74/3.69/3.84. His FIP has varied by just 0.18 over his past three seasons. He broke the 200-inning mark in 2018.
What that means to me is consistency. He isn’t going to be a Max Scherzer or Gerritt Cole, but Keuchel will put up solid numbers and buoy a rotation that has been in tumultuous waters for most of the season.
The Cardinals passed on Gio Gonzalez, who was even less of an investment than Keuchel, and he’s pitched consistently—not excellently, but consistently—for the Brewers. Even though he’s on the IL at the moment, Gonzalez would rank as the second-best starter on the team, were he a Cardinal.
Keuchel will cost more, but he’s a better pitcher.
The youth movement should be complementary
Follow the Cardinals farm system for any amount of time and you’ll see there’s a lot of depth at the top on the pitching side.
That’s not to say the ceilings are particularly high, but Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber have both handled major league starts, but neither has gotten a chance to step in this season. Ryan Helsley has come up as a starter, and Jake Woodford has been pitching well at Memphis this season. Not to mention Alex Reyes’ attempt to climb back up into a starter role.
But none of that has happened yet.
Reyes’ first start at Triple-A saw him give up seven runs over 4.2 innings. Génesis Cabrera has gotten the spot in the rotation over Ponce de Leon and an injured Austin Gomber and he hasn’t looked ready.
The youth injection into the Cardinal pitching staff last season was exciting and successful when it was surrounded by strong performances from Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and pre-injury Carlos Martínez.
Now, the Cardinals don’t need complementary pieces. They need someone to provide stability. If the front office is really placing an emphasis on 2019, they know that.
Low cost, low commitment
As mentioned further up, Keuchel was open to a prorated $18 million deal for 2019. To call back to Kimbrel’s contract, he’ll receive $10 million for the rest of this season. Andrew Miller is getting $12 million for the full year.
The Cardinals aren’t going to find a pitcher of Keuchel’s ability level on the trade market for a cheaper price when relating prospect value to dollar value. The top options of next year’s free agents on teams falling out of contention are Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner, and both aren’t leagues above what one would expect from Keuchel.
Moreover, Keuchel is no longer attached to draft picks in 2019 or 2020. The only risk is the $18 million price tag, and the Cardinals have more than enough room to pull it off.
Spotrac has the Cardinals’ 2019 luxury tax payroll at $173,061,422. That leaves $32,938,578 of space before hitting the limit. Having close to $15 million left to work with after signing a pitcher like Keuchel is more than enough to finish out the season.
The players acquired in deadline moves are typically nearing free agency and have salaries that are more team-friendly due to arbitration or early extensions. Eliminating the need for a starter removes a deadline need from the team anyway, but having that much room left for any remaining moves should leave the team flexible.
Keuchel’s willingness to sign for only the remainder of the season and lack of restrictions also makes him a true rental.
There’s no risk in taking a chance
Say Keuchel makes a few minor league starts to ready himself and the bottom completely falls out when he starts toeing the rubber for the Cardinals. Or he doesn’t even perform in his minors starts. Other than the money, how was he any more of a gamble than a Génesis Cabrera? Cut ties and move on.
Or conversely, Keuchel performs well but the rest of the team falls apart, with the Cardinals falling out of contention before the end of July. Is an $18 million Dallas Keuchel in great form not worth quite a bit on the trade market?
The way the front office has spoken about this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see pieces shipped off if the postseason becomes an improbable goal before the deadline. Marcell Ozuna is an impending free agent and is having a solid season. Matt Weiters wouldn’t go for a ton, but he’s played really well in a backup role on a cheap contract. José Martínez seems to be a perennial trade chip discussion. There may be a lot of roster turnover. How would Keuchel not help that?
Now that we’ve explored the worst-case scenarios, what about the best? Keuchel pitches like he did last year—or even better, like his 2015 self—and anchors the rotation. The pieces around him begin to pitch to form (or close) and the team’s biggest weakness in 2019 becomes a strength.
If you’re in a “win now” mentality, you’ve put all your chips on the table. At this point, under these circumstances, how does that not include Dallas Keuchel?