If starting pitchers still matter, Dallas Keuchel is a free agent to watch.
If velocity isn't everything, Keuchel is a free agent worth tracking.
If past success means anything, well, name another pitcher on this winter's market who has a Cy Young Award on his ledger.
CC Sabathia is more than a decade removed from his 2007 Cy Young and will celebrate his 39th birthday in the middle of next season. Maybe you want to count Clayton Kershaw, but after he and the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed Wednesday night to extend the deadline for him to opt out of his contract, it seems more and more like he'd rather just stay where he is.
Keuchel will turn 31 on New Year's Day. He won his Cy Young only three years ago. There's a good chance he'll leave the Houston Astros as a free agent this winter. And while he hasn't been in the Cy Young conversation since 2015, he did have a 3.23 ERA in 20 starts from June 16 to the end of the season. He also went five innings in his two postseason starts, giving up two earned runs on four hits each time.
By today's standards, those have to count as quality starts, right?
Only four pitchers made at least two starts this October and finished at least five innings in each of them. Two of those—Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole—were Keuchel's teammates with the Houston Astros. Neither of them is a free agent this winter, although the Astros might think about trying to sign Cole to a long-term deal.
The other two are Keuchel and Nathan Eovaldi, whose outstanding postseason has vaulted him up the list of free-agent starters.
Eovaldi is one of the hardest throwers in the game, with a fastball that averaged 97.1 mph in 2018, according to MLB.com's Statcast. Keuchel's fastball averaged 89.3 mph, which may once have been considered average but ranked 298th among starters in 2018.
In an era where nearly every hitter is trying to lift the ball, Keuchel was the only starter who got twice as many ground balls as fly balls, according to FanGraphs. In an era when managers are hesitant to let starters go deep into games, he was one of only 13 starters to pitch at least 200 innings. In an era where players regularly head to the disabled list, he was one of only three pitchers to make 34 or more starts (Verlander and Jhoulys Chacin of the Milwaukee Brewers were the other two).
And no matter what you think about using an opener and redefining roles, those things should still matter. They make Keuchel valuable, and they give his agent, Scott Boras, plenty to sell to teams in need of starting pitching.
Isn't that just about every team?
It may not be the Astros, the only team Keuchel has pitched for. Jon Heyman of Fancred reported Monday that the Astros plan to extend Keuchel the $17.9 million qualifying offer, but they seem unlikely to give him the big contract he will seek. With Verlander, Cole and Lance McCullers Jr. coming back, they don't have as big of a need for him as other teams might.
While it may be hard to sell Keuchel as the ace he was in 2015—he had 20 wins, a 2.48 ERA and pitched 232 innings that season—he still looks good compared to most of the other starters on this winter's market.
Eovaldi could be a popular choice, but could you count on him staying healthy through a long-term contract? Patrick Corbin will rank ahead of Keuchel, but this was the first time since 2013 he has been able to throw 200 innings, making him a risk. Hyun-Jin Ryu? He had a 1.97 ERA, but he pitched only 82.1 innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
J.A. Happ? Gio Gonzalez? Neither of them can match Keuchel's track record of success.
If a team has a great rotation, Keuchel ideally would be a third or fourth starter. That's what he was with the Astros this year.
But how many teams have three starters better than him? How many have two? Or even one?
Even for teams that would like to follow the lead of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers and redefine the role of starting pitcher, someone needs to eat up innings. Then again, based on the way Keuchel talked about new pitching strategies during a postseason news conference, he may not be the right guy for those teams.
"I don't like it at all," Keuchel said. "I think it's kind of a fad. And I mean if you're trying to win one or two games, I can see where you would try it out. But through the course of the whole season, you're going to get some guys hurt who aren't used to throwing as much. That's why starters are built to go six, seven innings, eight innings, and relievers are one-inning, maybe two-inning guys.
"So you can't couple six or seven relievers in one game and expect them to last 162 games. That's just not the way it is."
Keuchel was a five-inning guy in the postseason, but he was a six- or seven-inning guy for much of the season. There's no reason he can't be that for whichever team signs him this winter.
Even in this era of openers, initial out-getters and bullpen games, that should be worth quite a bit.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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