After the last couple of winters in which seemingly fine candidates for substantial multi-year deals were forced to settle for one-year contracts, this offseason has seen those same players finally land the kind of commitments they always seemed deserving of. Mike Moustakas signed a four-year, $64-million deal with the Reds after signing back-to-back one-year deals in Kansas City and Milwaukee. Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year, $73-million contract with the White Sox after taking just a one-year deal with the Brewers the previous season. And after health concerns limited Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal a year ago, he seems poised to collect a hefty payday as the best remaining bat available on the market this winter.
On Saturday, another player previously abandoned by the market finally landed his own multi-year deal. The White Sox signed former Braves and Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, as first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman was first to report the terms of the deal:
Keuchel to White Sox. 3/$55.5 with a vesting 4th year that could take to 4/$74.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 22, 2019
Keuchel, 31, was one of the longest hold-outs in free agency last year, as he and formidable closer Craig Kimbrel each waited until June 7 — two days after the conclusion of the amateur draft, when draft pick compensation was no longer attached to them — to sign a contract. While Kimbrel received three years and $43 million in his deal with the Cubs, Keuchel signed just a one-year, $13-million deal with the Braves. In Atlanta, he was part of a starting rotation that finished sixth in the National League in WAR while guiding the team to a second-straight NL East title before bowing out to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
In Chicago, Keuchel will join a pitching staff that found some star potential at the top of the rotation in 2019, and has spent the offseason on the hunt for depth. Lucas Giolito was worth 5.1 WAR in 29 starts in a breakout season where he emerged as the staff ace, but the rest of the starting group was rather weak. Reynaldo López carried a FIP- of 108 for the second-straight year, while No. 3 starter Iván Nova wasn’t much better, with a FIP- of 107. Nova is a free agent now, while Tommy John surgeries have made Carlos Rodón and top prospect Michael Kopech’s 2020 seasons fairly unpredictable, so Chicago entered this offseason in serious need of arms.
The White Sox took their first step toward addressing that need with a signing of Gio Gonzalez on Thursday for one year and $5 million, and waded back into the pool of left-handers to pick up Keuchel two days later. It will be interesting to see what effect — if any — a normal offseason has on Keuchel, who had a rather up-and-down 2019 after waiting until June 21 to make his first start of the season. As I wrote back on September 13, Keuchel settled into one of the best runs of his career down the stretch for Atlanta, thanks in part to getting tons of groundballs again. By the end of the year, he led all pitchers with at least 100 innings in groundball rate at 60.1%, his highest mark since 2015.
But that six-game stretch of brilliance late in the summer was bookended by more troublesome outings. The five starts before it saw Keuchel carry an ERA of 6.83, and over the three starts that followed it, he had an ERA of 6.19. Put everything together, and he finished with his worst FIP- (108) since his rookie year in 2012, a direct result of him allowing his highest percentage of walks and homers over that span without any real change in strikeout rate.
The natural question here, then, is what made Keuchel more appealing this year than last year, if he was a year older and coming off a statistically worse season? There wasn’t any velocity spike or tantalizing new spin rate to his stuff when he got to Atlanta, and while he was perfectly serviceable in two playoff appearances, he didn’t perform in a way that would have left any real impression. If a 30-year-old Keuchel coming off a 3.3-WAR season couldn’t secure a multi-year deal, why could a 31-year-old Keuchel get one after a 0.8-WAR season? Could entering this winter without a qualifying offer attached to him really make this much of a difference?
It is possible that Keuchel may have received a similar offer last year around this time, and was simply unwilling to take it. Back in February, it was reported that the southpaw approached teams at the start of last winter with an asking price of $25-$30 million per year for six to seven years. The fact that he had to wait until June to actually sign with a team suggests that no front office believed that to be a reasonable proposition, but whether Keuchel was offered something in the mid-to-high eight-figure range we don’t know. Grandal, for example, was reportedly offered a four-year, $60-million deal by the Mets last year, and turned it down, only to receive a four-year, $73-million contract this year. It’s possible Keuchel similarly put off committing long-term for a year, and increased his total guarantees in the process.
The contract he ultimately secured fell right around what was expected for him this winter. On our Top 50 Free Agents list — Keuchel ranked 12th — Kiley McDaniel anticipated he’d land a deal in the three year, $45-million range. The median crowdsource was closer to the AAV Keuchel landed, estimating a four-year, $70.4-million deal. And Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS was nearly perfect, spitting out a projected $53.4 million value on Keuchel over the next three seasons:
What makes Keuchel interesting here is that he is the kind of pitcher whose numbers could vary significantly depending on the players around him. With such high groundball rates, fielding a strong defensive infield behind him is important. Chicago is a bit of feast-or-famine in that regard — its third basemen were third-best in baseball on defense, while its second basemen were eighth-best. It’s shortstops, meanwhile, were second-worst in baseball, and its first basemen were sixth-worst. Yoán Moncada will be back to hold down third base in 2020, but Yolmer Sánchez was relieved of his duties at second thanks to a poor showing with the bat, thrusting Danny Mendick into the projected starting spot at the keystone position until top prospect Nick Madrigal arrives. The way things look at the moment, infield defense could be more of a weakness than a strength for the White Sox in 2020.
The biggest help to Keuchel in Chicago might not be the players behind him, though — it could be the one in front of him. Grandal, the newest catcher for the White Sox, is not only one of baseball’s best offensive backstops, but also one of its best pitch framers. He finished second in the majors in our framing runs (17.0), as well as Statcast’s Runs Extra Strikes (13) and Baseball Prospectus’ framing runs (19.4). Dating back to 2015, no other catcher is even close to Grandal’s 137.2 defensive runs above average. A catcher of Grandal’s caliber undeniably boosts his pitching staff, and a finesse pitcher like Keuchel, who relies on excellent location over swing-and-miss stuff, could benefit more than anyone. In fact, no pitcher in baseball threw a lower percentage of pitches in the strike zone in 2019 than Keuchel’s 33.6%. A catcher who steals more strikes could be enormously helpful to him.
How helpful? Well, last season’s Braves provided us with a good reference. Keuchel’s 112.2 innings in Atlanta were split close to evenly between two catchers: Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann. Flowers, like Grandal, is one of baseball’s very best defensive catchers – he was tied with Grandal in Runs Extra Strikes, and was third in framing runs despite catching hundreds of innings fewer than the other catchers in the top four. McCann, meanwhile, was closer to an average framing catcher in his age-35 season, finishing eighth in Runs Extra Strikes and 19th in framing runs. The sample size isn’t huge, and this sort of comparison is an admittedly crude measure, but the contrast in Keuchel’s numbers when pitching to the two was stark.
McCann caught eight of Keuchel’s first 10 starts, and Flowers caught eight of his final nine. There are a couple of different ways to look at that. Keuchel might have improved as the season went on, and Flowers happened to transition into catching him just as he was settling in. Throwing to Flowers might have also been what triggered Keuchel’s late-summer turnaround, helping him improve enough to make him worth an offer like the one the White Sox extended him.
In a vacuum, I’d probably believe the second option first, and that explanation is further supported by considering where exactly Flowers is best at framing pitches. For a sinkerballer like Keuchel, the best areas of the zone to buy strikes are going to be below the knees, low and in and low and away — areas Statcast identifies as Zones 18, 17 and 19. Turns out, Flowers performed pretty well in those zones in 2019, as did Grandal.
|Catcher||Runs Extra Strikes||Strike Rate||Zone 11||Zone 12||Zone 13||Zone 14||Zone 16||Zone 17||Zone 18||Zone 19|
Whatever led Chicago and other teams to be more aggressive in pursuing Keuchel this time around, they’re irrelevant now. The White Sox have him, and that fact alone is a signal that the team is serious about its intentions to chase down the AL Central this year. They indicated their desire to accelerate their rebuild last year when they got involved in the Manny Machado sweepstakes, and they were one of the first teams to spend serious money this winter when they signed Grandal. Two starting pitcher signings and a trade for outfielder Nomar Mazara later, they’re still hard at work improving the team. It would be a stretch at this juncture to say they’re a real contender to topple the Twins for the division crown — our Depth Charts project them to have the 16th-most WAR in baseball — but with two AL Central rivals planning to be punching bags in 2020 and a third apparently working hard to join them, who knows how easy it could be to stack up wins in this division and bolster a Wild Card chase. While Keuchel was waiting to sign last winter, he said it was important to him that he went to a contender. With some more action this winter and the graduation of a couple of key prospects, the White Sox could end up closer to that status than they were when the winter began.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.