For the first time in 26 years, the Atlanta Braves hope to catch lightning in a bottle by signing an established pitcher who doesn’t throw hard but wins awards anyway.
In 1993, Greg Maddux signed as a free agent, spurning the pursuing New York Yankees in the process. Now Dallas Keuchel has done the same.
Outbidding a half-dozen serious suitors, the Braves signed the veteran sinkerballer Friday at a relatively bargain rate of $20 million, pro-rated to $13 million for the rest of this season.
That’s a pretty good deal for a pitcher who rejected a $17.9 million qualifying offer from his last club, the Houston Astros, in the hope of getting a deal that was not only more lucrative but longer.
Keuchel’s contract with the Braves keeps him in Atlanta only for 2019 and allows him to explore free agency again next fall – perhaps with a second world championship ring. The lefty led the Houston Astros to their only World Series win in 2017, when they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now he’ll lead a pitching staff so young that most of its members haven’t even started to shave. Mike Soroka, the Canadian-born ace of the moment, is just 21, the same age as Bryce Wilson and Kolby Allard. All won their first big-league starts last summer – making the Braves the only team to get wins from three different 20-year-olds. Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright are 23, Max Fried is 25, Sean Newcomb is 26, and erstwhile No. 1 starter Mike Foltynewicz is 27. Even Julio Teheran, who has started the last six Opening Day games for the Braves, is only 28.
All that collection needed was a stud to stand at the top of the rotation.
Enter Dallas Keuchel.
The 6’3″ Tulsa native has a Cy Young Award on his trophy shelf, along with four Gold Gloves. Like Maddux, he relies on throwing a sinkerball for strikes and helping his own cause with such superlative defense that he’s actually a fifth infielder on the days he pitches.
With no DH in the National League, Keuchel only has to worry about eight opposing hitters rather than nine. The two-time All-Star has a lifetime record of 76-63 and career earned run average of 3.66. He’s even better in postseason action with a 4-2 mark and 3.31 ERA.
If Keuchel can do for the Braves what Jay Bruce has already done for the Phillies, the NL East title chase should stay tight til the end. Bruce, obtained from Seattle in a trade, belted four home runs in his first four games for the Phils, who placed him in left field so that they didn’t have to move rightfielder Bryce Harper, acquired during spring training.
It is the job of Keuchel and fellow lefty Max Fried to throttle such lefthanded sluggers as Bruce, Harper, and the Dodger quartet of Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Corey Seager, and Joc Pederson.
That’s especially important in the best-of-five Division Series that opens the playoffs. In a statistical analysis published Saturday, FanGraphs gave the Braves a 63 per cent chance of winning the 2019 NL East, with the Phillies second at 49.3 per cent, Washington third at 35.3, and the Mets fourth at 17.2.
Trades, injuries, and sudden spurts or declines by key players can change those prognostications in a heartbeat.
With his considerable postseason experience, Keuchel is expected to supply the steady heartbeat the Atlanta pitching staff lacks. He joins a staff loaded with promise but short on practice. He also re-joins veteran batterymate Brian McCann, who signed with Atlanta during the winter.
At age 31, the bearded southpaw will wear the same No. 60 that adorned his back in Houston. He’ll also bump one of the current Braves starters – most likely struggling righthander Kevin Gausman, who pitched well in Atlanta after arriving from Baltimore last July but hasn’t found his form this season. Gausman’s next stop will be the bullpen, the minors, another club, or even the unemployment line.
Braves manager Brian Snitker, named Friday to the coaching staff of the National League All-Star team, now has a week or two to realign his rotation while Keuchel rounds into shape at Triple-A Gwinnett.
By the time his team comes to New York for the final weekend of June, Snitker should have a starting five of Keuchel, Fried, Soroka, Teheran, and Foltynewicz, with Toussaint and Newcomb ready to step in if anybody falters. Wilson and Wright, who opened the year in the rotation, would be other options.
For Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the Keuchel signing does not signal a stand-pat attitude between now and the July 31 trade deadline. The team has long been linked to North Carolina native Madison Bumgarner, another veteran lefty whose contract is expiring, and wants to beef up a bullpen that lost lefty closer A.J. Minter (sent to minors with command issues) and Arodys Vizcaino (injured and traded). Craig Kimbrel, an ex-Brave who signed with the Cubs Friday, was also within the team’s radar sites.
The 2018 Braves won 90 games, good enough for an eight-game bulge over second-place Washington, but watched three division rivals dominate the winter trade market. The Keuchel signing should silence the critics, at least for the moment.