I’ve said it before, but I think that the rotation could be a real weak spot in 2019 if the team gets too complacent. Between the free agencies of Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton; the possibility of Lance McCullers’ injuries lingering; Justin Verlander’s age (he turns 36 in February), as well as Charlie Morton’s if he’s brought back (he turns 35 in under two weeks); Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock being a year removed from regular starts; the Astros’ unusually good rotation health in 2018; and the inherent uncertainty of pitching prospects, there are a lot of potential points of major regression next year. You can never be too prepared when it comes to the starting pitching.
If the Astros decide to bring in a more-established pitcher to help round things out, there are a lot of potential targets to look at. There are the younger free agent arms who will likely attract the most attention, Patrick Corbin and Alvin-native Nathan Eovaldi, both of whom will be in their age-29 seasons next year. There are some potential aces who might join them thanks to opt-out clauses in their current deals, like Clayton Kershaw and David Price, as well as a cavalcade of second-tier arms if the team decides to go that route. There’s also the possibility of another blockbuster trade, like the one that brought Gerrit Cole to Houston last year.
But what if the best option is the least exciting one? Could the Astros try and bring back Dallas Keuchel? And if they think resigning Keuchel is the best option, what could a contract for him look like, and how would it affect the roster the next few years?
The first step in the process is to get a ballpark estimate of what size contract Keuchel will be looking for. Sure, he’ll take as much as any team is willing to give him, but he likely has some other recent deals in mind as a frame of reference for what to expect.
It’s hard not to see last year’s deals for Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta as something of a starting point, then, given that they’re some of the most recent data points to work with. And it’s not like there aren’t points of comparison between them. All three hit free agency heading into their age-31 or -32 seasons. Keuchel and Arrieta were the 2015 Cy Young Award winners, Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement has Keuchel and Darvish as basically the same in their pre-free agency seasons (3.7 WAR to 3.6, Darvish’s favor), and their career WAR values are all within two and a half wins of each other.
There are differences, of course; the most notable ones being Darvish’s more extensive injury history and lack of a qualifying offer as a mid-season trade (Keuchel seems likely to receive one, this year totaling $17.9 million). That’s the one thing that may gum up comparisons the most; we’ve seen plenty of players’ value take a hit as teams become less willing to sacrifice the draft pick the comes with signing a player that’s been given a qualifying offer.
But overall, that leaves us with an average annual value in the low-to-mid-20 million range. The length of the deal will probably be something around five to six years (like Darvish or 2015 signee Johnny Cueto, himself a 4-WAR player without a QO the year before free agency). He might have to sacrifice the opt out as a result of the lessened leverage the offer brings, take a hit in AAV, or just sign a shorter deal (with a higher AAV) like Arrieta did. Either way, you should plan on something like a $20- to $25-million hit to your budget, and you should plan on him being around for at least five or six years, although he may go shorter than that for the higher end of that dollar range.
Will he be worth it? That’s a little tougher question. Let’s start with something like 5 years, $100 million as our estimate, since it’s some nice round numbers and essentially Darvish’s deal with one year and a little AAV taken off to account for the QO. That gets you Dallas’s ages 31 through 35 seasons, and given the current going rate of about $8 million per win on the open market, means Keuchel would need to be worth about 12.5 Wins over the contract, or 2.5 per season. Alternatively, if we go with a more Arrieta-like 3 years, $75 million deal, you’d need to see just under 9.5 WAR (a little under 3.2 per season) from him over that time.
Neither is outrageous, given his recent performance (going back the last five years, he’s been worth 3.6, 2.4, 2.6, 5.9, and 3.6 WAR in a season). You’ll almost certainly be losing value on the back half of the deal for the longer contract but he’s more likely to meet the AAV for a few years; meanwhile the higher-AAV will be a struggle to match, especially if he’s injured like he was in 2016 and 2017. There are some other concerns as well, though. His groundball rate dropped to 53.7% last year (the lowest it’s been since his debut way back in 2012), and his strikeout rate dropped from the low 20s all the way down to 17.5% (the lowest that’s been since 2014).
He kept his FIP more or less in line with the last two years thanks to a corresponding drop in home runs, but the fact that batters are making more contact off of him (his contact percentage and swinging strike rates were again the worst he’s posted since his rookie year) make me nervous about how long into his 30s he can keep performing.
Of course, there is room in the budget to play around with, since only $78 million is accounted for next year’s budget so far (that will go up with arbitrations still to be decided, but it’s still $87 million less than 2018 at the moment). And, of course, there are the numerous upcoming free agencies to think ahead for. Even on a shortened, three-year deal, Keuchel’s deal would wind up overlapping with the need to resign core players like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (free agents after 2019), and George Springer (2020). Bump that up to five years and the only player that would outlast him would be Jose Altuve.
I’m not totally opposed to Dallas Keuchel returning on the right deal, but it’s going to strongly depend on his market. Something like what Arrieta signed last year wouldn’t be too awful; even with the dip in his numbers last year, he was still worth more than $25 million. If it’s just a one-year blip, he more than surpasses that; if it’s the new normal and you get a season or two like that, it’s more than fair plus you dodge the tail end of a decline phase. It’s still not a sure bet or anything, but that’s not the worst scenario, given the inherent risk that comes with any pitcher. The only question is whether other teams see him the same way they saw Arrieta; if there’s more demand this year, Keuchel could be rapidly priced out of that type of deal.
There are still a lot of questions that we’ll have to wait and see how they play out, though. Will there be enough teams looking to improve their rotations this winter to kick off a bidding war on him? Or will other teams be scared enough of a player with a qualifying offer attached to avoid him to a five-plus-year deal? Will Dallas be willing to sign a deal like that, if his market is cool enough? Are there better options more readily available to the Astros, and what would they cost in comparison?
Someone like Nathan Eovaldi would probably be a better signing, but after his strong performance to end the year, it might greatly drive up the cost for his services. There might be better trade candidates, but we’re still not totally sure who all will wind up being sellers this year. All of that uncertainty means it’s worth at least keeping resigning Keuchel as a contingency plan to help stabilize things, and planning around that contingency in the meantime.