Former Astros ace, Dallas Keuchel, after sitting out more than two months of the 2019 season and after not being offered a multi-year $100+ million contract, has signed a contract worth $13 million with the Atlanta Braves to pitch less than four months of the current season.
This is worth approximately the equivalent of about a $20 million contract for a full year of pitching and Keuchel will return to the free agent hopper at the end of 2019. A team signing him then would not forfeit a future draft pick though they will be signing a pitcher who has taken one more step into his 30’s, beginning the 2020 season at the age of 32.
The easiest thing at this time would be to chide Keuchel for over-estimating his own worth in a sinking market for “older” players. He reportedly turned down a 5 year/ $90 million extension a couple years ago from the Astros. He did (unsurprisingly) turn down a $17.9 million qualifying offer in the offseason from the Astros that attached a poison pill draft pick forfeiture to his signing. He reportedly did turn down a number of offers since he became a free agent, though there has been no report on the length or annual worth of those offers or even which teams proffered those contracts.
But the point of this post is not to question his ego, question the influence of his agent Scott (Beelzebub) Boras or even question his loyalty to the Astros. It is simply to thank one of the most critical pieces in the Astros run from laughingstock to World Champion and perennial contender.
The Astros picked Dallas Keuchel 10 drafts ago, a seventh round pick out of the University of Arkansas. He rose fairly quickly through the minors despite the fact that he faltered every time he was first promoted to a level and then did better upon repeat. It is probably more a testimony to how bad the Astros were and how bad the minors were that he was promoted to the majors after putting up a so-so 6-4 mark at AAA with a 3.90 ERA and with only striking out 4.9 hitters per 9 IP in 2012. It is no exaggeration to say that Keuchel is not the kind of pitcher the current front office would ever draft or push up the ladder these days.
Once up in the majors, Keuchel was bad for two seasons (3-8, 5.27 ERA in 2012 and 6-10, 5.15 ERA in 2013) pitching for the worst team in the majors. It was likely he came to spring training in 2014 on his last MLB legs. At this point he made a major leap and was one of the key cogs in pulling this team into respectability and eventually excellence. In 2014 he was a very good 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA, which is no small feat with a team that was only 72-90 and had no real veteran presence to lead the way for him. In 2015, he carried the team to its first playoff spot in a decade with his lightning strike of a Cy Young season – 20-8 and 2.43 ERA. He then pitched brilliantly on the road (6 IP, 3 hits, 0 runs) against the Yankees to win the wild card play-in game and move them into the playoffs against the Royals. Most will remember his ill fated relief attempt in Game 5, but forget that he beat the Royals in game 3 with a 7 IP, 1 run effort to get them to the cusp of a series win.
When Dallas faltered in 2016 (9-12, 4.55 ERA) , trying to pitch through an injury, the team faltered also. Both he and the Astros turned it around in 2017 as he put up a 14-5 record and 2.90 ERA around another injury. But the two most important things he did this season may have been off the field. First, he was not shy in echoing what we all felt when the front office failed to improve the team at the “normal” trade deadline at the end of July. Whether this spurred on Jeff Luhnow to heavily pursue Justin Verlander leading into the waiver trade deadline, we will never know. But we do know that when the Astros struggled to get agreement from Verlander on that trade as time was ticking down, the one player they had call him was Dallas Keuchel. Despite his criticism of the front office, they trusted him to be their banner carrier in convincing the difference maker to leave the comfort of his forever baseball home in Detroit and jump to Houston.
Now there are players, who may not want to win as much as Keuchel does, who would have said no thank you on calling Verlander. After all, Dallas was the Astros ace and he knew that bringing JV here would be ceding that title to the new guy. But he knew that he was playing for a terrific team with a great offense and injury prone pitching that needed that one move to send them where no Astro team had ever reached before. He made the call, the trade was made with seconds to spare and the Astros rode that move to the World Championship in 2017.
Keuchel was good , not great in 2018 (12-11, 3.75 ERA) and entered the off-season thinking he would be one of those Mega-Lottery winners in free agency. It has not happened and may never happen for him. Keuchel should have no complaints as he has pulled in $30 million in his career with $13 million more coming. The Astros should have no complaints as they picked up 76 regular season wins and a confident team leader for their investment.
And the Astro fans should just say thanks to Dallas Keuchel and best of luck (unless your new team meets our always team in the World Series). The next chapter will be unfolding soon.