While the Braves did not get closer and All Time Braves Saves Leader Craig Kimbrel, this week it was announced that they were able to sign the other top free agent pitcher without a job in 2019: Dallas Keuchel.
Let me clear- this is not the end all be all of deals. But do I like it? Absolutely.
Keuchel is a former Cy Young Award Winner, but it would be a mistake to assume that is the player the Braves signed. Last year he led the AL in hits allowed – not the category you want to lead a league in. Yet – he also pitched over 200 innings and managed a 3.74 ERA.
For the Braves, even more than what he provides in terms of record and ERA is what else he brings to the table for this young team. Similar to Josh Donaldson, both players are being paid far more than what their statistics might reflect, but it does not mean that they are being overpaid.
Donaldson leads the team in salary at $23M, with Freddie Freeman second at $21M and Keuchel now sliding in third at $13M for the rest of this season before he will head back out to free agency.
In Fangraphs WAR rating, Freeman leads the team at 2.4 which is no real surprise. Defending Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr sits in second place at 2.2, with rookie phenom Mike Soroka third at 1.8. Donaldson sits 7th on the list at a WAR of exactly 1.0, tied with C Tyler Flowers. $23M for that? Yet Donaldson is more than that: he is tested in tough situations more than the young core of Acuna/Albies/Riley – and that will come in handy as the Braves continue their pennant climb and into October. He can help the others and provide that mentor mentality the Braves have always enabled from Chipper Jones to Andres Galaragga to David Ross.
Keuchel is only 31, but won a World Series just two years ago and rejoins friend and Braves legend Brian McCann who is having a good season back home. It might be a stretch to say he is a grizzled post-season veteran, but he will be the only starter born in the 1980’s. He can provide leadership, solid quality innings that will help take the load off of their other young starters and beleaguered bullpen. The Braves have the 5th fewest innings pitched by their rotation and 17th ranked ERA, and Keuchel should help improve those numbers assuming he is close to as good as shape as his agent Scott Boras says he is.
For years the Braves never needed to make rotation trades with the dominance of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz. That has changed though of course. I remember realizing we were in a different Braves era when the big Braves trade was acquiring Paul Maholm in 2012. With all due respect to Maholm, it didn’t seem to fit with the Braves Way.
In the rotation, last year’s pitching addition Kevin Gausman – who truly was great for the Braves the second half of last year – but who needs to go into a bullpen that needs help. Gausman had long tantalized the Orioles with his stretches of good and bad, and thankfully the Braves got the good last year, but now the bad Gausman has returned and the Braves have enough depth that they don’t have to be stuck throwing him out every 5th day.
Many criticized the Braves for not spending big on a pitcher this off-season, but turns out the team knew what they were doing. They avoided a long term committment to an aging starting pitcher, which would be ridiculous given the depth of young pitching close to being big league ready or ready. That is playing out already in 2019 to dramatic effect. Last year the day Chipper Jones was elected into the Hall of Fame, Sean Newcomb came within one out of a no-hitter. This year Newcomb’s control issues have sent him to the bullpen, but if he can master those issues he would be another rotation option. By the way – he has only walked two hitters in his last 14 appearances out of the bullpen so he may have turned that corner indeed. Touki Toussaint has found a bullpen role, but could also help spell Fried/Soroka in spot starts to keep them fresh for a deep post-season run.
The Braves avoided signing Keuchel to a long term deal he is not needed for, didn’t have to give up any of their prized prospects, and also help their pitchers learn from a guy who by all accounts is a great teammate and been there before.
The Braves reportedly had about $15 in their budget to make in-season additions to the team, and while Keuchel will take up most of that, it doesn’t mean they are done. Many have the Braves linked to making a trade with the Giants Madison Bumgarner. For him they might have to give up a haul of their prospects to a team that is trying to rebuild. Bumgarner is a big game pitcher that would completely change the tenor of this team and give this team their *first true ACE in the post-season since Tim Hudson in 2010 – but first ace still in his prime since John Smoltz.
The 2018 Braves arrived ahead of schedule. 2019 was the planned year to win a World Championship. Seeing what Austin Riley has been doing “a year early” has emboldened this team on the field and in the business suite to sign Keuchel. He was wanted by several others, but he joins a Braves team that needed him. The offense is the most well balanced one I have seen on a Braves team in a long team, and while Riley hurts the defense while in left field, he is better than Evan Gattis was in 2013 and gives another power element needed in the post-season.
Dallas Keuchel does not automatically hand the division to the Braves. The Phillies still lead the division, still have a dormant Bryce Harper, and a good pitching staff of their own. It does show that this team will not just sit and wait for better things to happen, that this team understands what veteran leadership combined with youth can do, and is absolutely a step in the right direction.
*True Ace defined as a pitcher that with the game on the line you have turned to him over and over to win a game. I do not consider 2018 Mike Foltynewicz a true ace, just the best pitcher on the team at the time. Same goes for Kris Medlen who started the 2012 WC game, and certainly over and over Teheran has proven he is not a true ace either. Also, at this point Keuchel is not also my definition of a True Ace.