One of the most bizarre free agency journeys of my baseball watching lifetime finally came to a conclusion on Thursday night, with the news coming out that former Houston Astros ace Dallas Keuchel had reached an agreement to pitch for the Atlanta Braves for the remainder of the 2019 season:
#Braves have agreed to terms with left-hander Dallas Keuchel, sources tell The Athletic.— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) June 7, 2019
Likely a one-year deal, but working to confirm that.
Keuchel deal is for one year, $13 million. Physical is Friday in Atlanta. First start is scheduled for Saturday in Gwinnett.— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) June 7, 2019
So thus ends Keuchel's first journey into free agency, an endeavor he will repeat next offseason, but will do so with a much clearer idea of the market for his services and, perhaps more importantly, the market for his style of pitcher. Keuchel is a ground ball specialist who relies on location and changing speeds, a combination that has become severely devalued in this age of spin rate and strikeout love.
As Keuchel prepares for a minor league assignment to quickly get into game shape and help Atlanta chase a National League East title — as of Thursday, the Braves are 33-29, two games back of the Phillies in the division — here are a few thoughts on Keuchel's legacy and the strange route he wound up taking to find his next employer:
Keuchel will always be an Astros legend
When the Astros were hoisting the World Series trophy back in November 2017, my immediate thoughts went to the players who had to endure the embarrassment of living through a 51-111 record in 2013 — Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, Brad Peacock, and yes, Keuchel. His 2015 season, in which he won 20 games and a Cy Young Award, was the catalyst for leading the Astros out of their darkest time in franchise history and into perennial postseason participation. Keuchel's performance in the 2015 wild card game, a win over the Yankees, led the Astros to their first postseason win since 2005. He won multiple Gold Gloves, and made two All Star Games. It's unlikely Keuchel will need to buy drinks if he's spotted out at any Houston drinking establishments. Astro fans will pick up the tab.
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Perhaps Keuchel's greatest feat was helping deliver Verlander in 2017
For all the great things Keuchel did on the mound in his Astro career, perhaps the most important performance of his Astros career was in a now legendary phone conversation with then-Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander, a chat in which Keuchel essentially convinced the former Cy Young and MVP winner that the Astros clubhouse was the place for him to chase that elusive World Series title. When Jeff Luhnow needed someone to execute the sales pitch on Verlander to waive his no-trade clause, he chose Keuchel. Now, Verlander is in the midst of as dominant a stretch as he's had in his whole career, and starts in on a two-year, $66 million contract extension next season. The irony of Keuchel delivering Verlander to the Astros, given Verlander's inking an extension to be the ace of the Astros staff through 2021, is quite compelling.
In retrospect, perhaps Keuchel should have taken the Astros' qualifying offer
At the outset of free agency, the Astros made a one year, $17.9 million qualifying offer to Keuchel, so that when he rejected it, they would receive draft compensation from the team that ultimately signed him in free agency. With the timing of the signing now being after the 2019 MLB Draft, the Astros will get no such compensation. However, in retrospect, perhaps Keuchel may have been better off re-signing with the Astros for one year, and trying to hit free agency again in 2020. As it currently stands, that's precisely what he will end up doing anyway with this deal he is signing with the Braves. Clearly, one of the biggest losers in the Keuchel saga is his agent Scott Boras, who no doubt promised Keuchel a fat, multiyear deal from some free agency suitor. That market never really materialized, and Keuchel was left rejecting what he felt were "below market" offers, and ultimately settling for this remainder-of-the-season offer from the Braves. Keuchel should sue Boras for malpractice.
From the Astros' side of things, Keuchel's rejecting the qualifying offer was probably the best thing for them, as Wade Miley and Brad Peacock have done an admirable job as the third and fourth starters, each at a fraction of what Keuchel would have been paid. Ultimately, the Keuchel free agency journey, along with the Astros' replacement of Keuchel, are collectively another feather in the cap of Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, and a testament to his near flawless decision making as the architect of this franchise.