Chicago White Sox Stake Their Claim to the AL Central with Dallas Keuchel Deal

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 23, 2019

Atlanta Braves' Dallas Keuchel in action during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Even if the Chicago White Sox aren't yet finished with their offseason shopping, they've already done enough to be taken seriously as a contender for the American League Central crown.

When we checked in on the White Sox in late November, they had already positioned themselves for an improvement on their 72-win campaign in 2019 by re-signing first baseman Jose Abreu and adding catcher Yasmani Grandal. They've continued to be active since then, up to and including the big deal they struck Saturday.

As ESPN's Jeff Passan was first to report, the White Sox are in agreement with 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel:

According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Keuchel's deal with Chicago guarantees him $55.5 million over three years. It also has a fourth-year vesting option that could bring his total payout up to $74 million.

That's not exactly Gerrit Cole ($324 million), Stephen Strasburg ($245 million), Zack Wheeler ($118 million) or Madison Bumgarner ($85 million) money, but it sure beats where Keuchel's first free-agent foray ended up.

Once Keuchel, who'll turn 32 on Jan. 1, ended his time with the Houston Astros after the 2018 season, he seemed like a good bet to earn a multiyear contract. Instead, teams gave him such a wide berth that he didn't sign until the Atlanta Braves picked him up for $13 million in June.

He only made 19 starts as a result, but it was otherwise business as usual for the left-hander. After posting a 3.74 ERA in 2018, he finished 2019 with a 3.75 ERA.

Keuchel set the bar higher with sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014, 2015 and 2017, but he did do at least one thing in 2019 that ought to have the White Sox intrigued about a potential return to his Cy Young-winning form.

After taking a disconcerting turn toward the league average in 2018, Keuchel's ground-ball rate bounced back into the 60-plus stratosphere to which he's accustomed:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Keuchel's ground-ball magnetism should play well with a Chicago infield that held ground balls to a .235 average in 2019.

As David Adler of MLB.com pointed out, Keuchel also ought to work well with Grandal. The former gets by on working the edges of the strike zone with his sinker. The latter is known for stretching the zone by way of his outstanding knack for framing.

Given Keuchel's age, it's difficult to project what he'll do all the way through 2022. But in 2020, at least, he should give the White Sox roughly 200 above-average innings.

Elsewhere on the topic of new White Sox lefties, there's also Gio Gonzalez. The White Sox originally drafted the 34-year-old all the way back in 2004, and he agreed to come home on a one-year, $4.5 million contract on Friday.

The White Sox probably can't expect the same ace-type pitching that netted Gonzalez Cy Young votes for the Washington Nationals in 2012 and 2017. But if he carries over the 3.50 ERA he posted for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019, that'll do nicely.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In any case, All-Star right-hander Lucas Giolito, who broke out with a 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 2019, will have at least two other capable pitchers to help him carry the White Sox's starting rotation in 2020. And between Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and top prospect Michael Kopech, Chicago has three more starters who have real upside contained within their live arms.

Meanwhile, the White Sox's bullpen looms as an underrated threat.

The foursome of Alex Colome, Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero combined for a 2.53 ERA in 2019. Kelvin Herrera is almost certainly better than the 6.14 ERA he coughed up. And in waiver pickup Tayron Guerrero, the White Sox added a guy with a 99.0 mph average fastball.

On the other side of the ball, the White Sox took a big step toward balancing their right-leaning lineup when they added Grandal, who's a switch-hitter. They took another step on Dec. 10 when they acquired lefty-swinging right fielder Nomar Mazara from the Texas Rangers.

Granted, this won't be much of a step if Mazara merely maintains the form that produced a .754 OPS over four seasons with the Rangers. Yet he's a former top prospect who's still only 24 years old, and his upward-trending hard-contact rate is one reason for the White Sox to dream big.

According to Bruce Levine of 670 The Score, up next for the White Sox might be Edwin Encarnacion. The 36-year-old's heyday as one of Major League Baseball's great sluggers is over, but he's still riding a string of eight straight seasons with more than 30 home runs.

Even as is, White Sox manager Rick Renteria has some pieces to play with in his offense.

Abreu and Grandal are going to provide power in the middle, as will Eloy Jimenez if he carries over his Rookie of the Month-winning surge from September. After teaming up for an .891 OPS, 43 homers and 27 stolen bases in 2019, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada figure to do a bit of everything.

CHICAGO - JUNE 01:  Tim Anderson #7 tosses the baseball to Yoan Moncada #10 of the Chicago White Sox during the game against the Cleveland Indians on June 1, 2019 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Im
Ron Vesely/Getty Images

In second baseman Nick Madrigal and center fielder Luis Robert, the White Sox have two of the best prospects in baseball pounding on the door. Both could demand the Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. treatment this coming spring.

Even if fortune doesn't smile upon them, the White Sox shouldn't be any worse than a .500 team in 2020. In the event that their unproven youngsters come through and their established stars live up to their billing, they'll have themselves a path to the top of the AL Central.

While the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals rebuild, the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians could be doing more to sidetrack the White Sox's mission. However, neither appears to be in a hurry.

With at least two holes in their starting rotation, the Twins are openly inviting regression from their surprise 101-win campaign in 2019. Coming off a 93-win season, the Indians have already traded two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. Fellow ace Mike Clevinger and even superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor may be next as they seek to further cut payroll.

Come 2020, it will have been a dozen years since the White Sox last won a division title. With the way things are shaping up, they have a legitimate shot at avoiding a baker's dozen.

              

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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