Oh, the thrill of gainful employment. After months spent navigating the free-agent wilderness, Dallas Keuchel finally returned to the workforce Thursday, ending a lengthy hibernation by agreeing to a one-year, $13 million pact with Atlanta. It will be a jarring sight when Keuchel dons Braves threads for the first time after spending so many years in Houston, the city where he had his Cy Young breakthrough and eventually reached the sport’s pinnacle as a World Series champion in 2017. It would have been even stranger to see Keuchel in pinstripes with no remnant of his signature beard (facial hair is a deal breaker in the house that Ruth built), a possibility many were bracing for.
After months of being frozen out by disinterested suitors, the dam broke Monday as starter-needy teams including the Braves, Yankees, Cardinals and Twins jostled to be the first in line for Keuchel’s services. For the uninitiated, Monday coincided with the start of the MLB Draft. The former Arkansas Razorback had previously been attached to draft-pick compensation by virtue of the one-year, $17.9 million qualifying offer he received from Houston, but with the draft underway, teams in pursuit of Keuchel were no longer affected. The Yankees—a team with very real World Series aspirations and a starting staff in need of a pick-me-up—were the odds-on favorite to land Keuchel until the Braves broke free from the pack Thursday night.
Assuming they're getting the same Keuchel who tormented American League hitters for the better part of a decade, or at least a reasonable facsimile, the Braves have to like their chances in a wide-open NL East. Even if he’s just passing by—Atlanta could very well be a pit stop for the left-hander on his way to something bigger and better in 2020—Keuchel would seem to be an ideal mentor for the Braves’ young staff, a fraternity inhabited by large baseball children such as Touki Toussaint (22) and Mike Soroka (21). A crafty, velocity-challenged veteran who has made a career out of smoke and mirrors, Keuchel should have plenty of wisdom to impart on Atlanta’s youth. Plus, he’s a darn good pitcher, as his two All-Star nods, career 3.66 ERA and 2015 AL Cy Young Award would attest to.
Though not the marriage most were expecting—Keuchel to the Yankees felt like a foregone conclusion until the Braves made their play—the 31-year-old’s union with Atlanta seems beneficial for both parties. In Keuchel, the Braves are getting a trusted, experienced arm with Cy Young pedigree without forfeiting a high draft pick or trading a top prospect. From Keuchel’s vantage point, he’s pitching for a contender, or at least a probable playoff team, while earning a cushy $13 million salary for what equates to a half-year’s work. And if he performs up to his usual standards, Keuchel should have a fairer shot at free agency this time around now that he’s no longer burdened by the restrictive qualifying offer.
Vacation is over for Keuchel, who arrives in Atlanta ready to work. The seven-year vet will begin his Braves tenure in the minors Saturday when he debuts for Triple-A Gwinnett. It might take a handful of starts for Keuchel to shake off the rust, though he comes more prepared than most having spent much of the past few months throwing at the Scott Boras Training Institute in Southern California. The four-time Gold Glove recipient simulated a normal starter workload during that span, throwing upwards of 100 pitches every five days. Midseason arrivals have a spotty track record and while Keuchel can’t confront that narrative until we see him debut for the Braves (we can only glean so much from rehab appearances), the Tulsa native seems eager to buck that trend.
The question many are asking (and I’m sure it’s crossed Keuchel’s mind as well) is, was it worth it? Keuchel had every right to be choosy as a free agent—you only get to play this game once—and certainly the low-ball offers he fielded weren’t commiserate with his elite talent level. But in the end, it’s hard to say if Keuchel came out ahead in his standoff with MLB. His reported $13 million salary is significantly less than the qualifying offer he scoffed at last fall. And while Craig Kimbrel—who waged a similar stare-down with prospective teams this offseason—netted a multi-year deal from the Cubs earlier this week, the best Keuchel could muster was a single year. With next year’s free agency hovering ominously like a storm cloud ready to burst, everything is riding on Keuchel’s 2019.
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With Keuchel off the board, New York will have to look elsewhere for its pitching fix. Keuchel was thought to be the Yankees’ weapon of choice, but perhaps Brian Cashman is planning a bigger splash closer to the trade deadline. If that’s his preference, the ambitious GM will have plenty of levers to pull with Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer all rumored to be on the move. Yankees fans have been talking up the Bumgarner angle for ages—any half-hour sampling of WFAN is sure to render at least a mention of the Giants ace—but is he worth the cost? It would surely take an excessive prospect haul to pry him loose from San Francisco, a steep price for a rental piece. It’s also been revealed that the Yankees are one of eight clubs on Bumgarner’s no-trade list, giving him veto power over any deal that might send him to the Bronx.
The Bauer buzz is mostly speculative, though with Cleveland near the end of its title window and the Twins running away with the AL Central, it could be time for the Tribe to blow it up. Stroman is similarly intriguing and while it’s rare for teams to trade within their division, the Yankees and Toronto have done it before. In fact, the two sides broke bread at last year’s trade deadline, finding common ground in a swap that sent J.A. Happ to the Bombers in exchange for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney.
Whatever materializes in Atlanta and New York moving forward, Keuchel’s triumphant return from free-agent purgatory just made this summer a bit more interesting.
Quick Hits: Speaking of triumphant returns, Didi Gregorius will be on hand to make his season debut Friday against the Indians following a lengthy recovery from Tommy John surgery. The plan, at least initially, is for Didi to play two out of every three games at shortstop. … Gleyber Torres is nursing a sore left shoulder, an injury Yankees manager Aaron Boone attributes to “wear and tear.” The All-Star infielder was available off the bench but didn’t see any action Thursday against Toronto. … Max Kepler snapped an 0-for-21 dry spell by slugging three homers Thursday in a win over Cleveland. Coincidentally, Kepler’s last three-homer game on August 1, 2016 also came against the Indians. … Jharel Cotton, who is still recovering from last year’s Tommy John surgery, underwent a hamstring debridement Thursday in Dallas. No timetable was given for his return. … J.D. Martinez had his afternoon cut short against the Royals Thursday due to back spasms. Boston won anyway, running its winning streak to four while keeping within 6.5 games of the first-place Yankees in the AL East. … Shin-Soo Choo was a spectator for Thursday’s series finale against Baltimore, sitting with a hand injury he suffered on a hit-by-pitch the night prior. The veteran outfielder has been a pleasant surprise for fantasy owners this year, chipping in with a .920 OPS over 217 at-bats. … Dwight Smith Jr. took a nasty spill Thursday at Texas, running face-first into the left-field fence after robbing Rougned Odor of extra bases. Smith suffered a concussion on the play and also went for X-rays on his injured shoulder. An IL stint seems likely for the Orioles outfielder. … Mitch Haniger was forced from Thursday’s game with a lower-body contusion after fouling a ball off himself in the sixth inning. The opposing pitcher, Astros ace Justin Verlander, made a bit of history in that game by passing Mike Mussina for 20th on MLB’s all-time strikeout list. … Justin Upton will head out on a minor-league rehab assignment on Friday. The four-time All-Star will report to High-A Inland Empire as he continues his road back from turf toe. … Fernando Tatis Jr. (hamstring) returned from the injured list Thursday, appearing in his first game since late April. The 20-year-old contributed a single and two walks in the Padres’ victory over Washington. … Peter Lambert showed no first-day jitters in his big-league debut Thursday at Wrigley Field, holding the Cubs to one run on four hits over seven dominant innings in a 3-1 Rockies victory. The 22-year-old delivered nine strikeouts in the winning effort.