Had the Atlanta Braves signed Dallas Keuchel over the winter — at the hefty, multiyear terms he was seeking in free agency — he would have been the centerpiece of their offseason, a decorated veteran lefty handed big money to front the Braves’ young rotation. It might have doubled — and then some —the amount the team ultimately spent on free agents. It would have altered the team’s cellular composition.
Instead, the Braves waited out Keuchel’s demands — and the draft-pick-compensation penalties attached to him — until June 7, signed him to a one-year, $13 million contract, and will send him to the mound Friday night at Nationals Park against the Washington Nationals, not as the centerpiece of their roster but as a complementary piece for a team that is already, as the season’s midpoint approaches, one of baseball’s best.
“We needed help both in the ability to get outs and to go deep into games,” Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said of Keuchel in a telephone interview this week. “… He’s really good, and he represented a rare opportunity to get a top starter at midseason and not have to give up prospects, only money.”
While many in the industry expected the Braves — owing to their 13 blown saves in 33 chances in 2019 — to pursue the other top “leftover” pitcher still on the free agent market in early June, seven-time all-star closer (and former homegrown Brave) Craig Kimbrel, the Braves zeroed in on Keuchel, at least once Kimbrel’s market soared toward the three-year, $43 million deal he ultimately got from the Chicago Cubs.
“The blown saves total points to [a need for relief], and there’s a more emotional reaction involved when you blow a late lead,” Anthopoulos said. “In an ideal situation, we would have gotten both [Keuchel and Kimbrel]. But if we had to pick between the two, our [rotation] has been more of an issue this year. We’ve been anywhere from 10th to 12th [in the National League] in starters’ ERA this year, and that’s not going to cut it.
“Plus, one [pitcher] was a one-year deal, and the other was a multiyear.”
Keuchel, 31, joins a Braves team that already has done much of the heavy lifting in building a sustained contender. At 44-31 entering Thursday, they held a four-game lead in the NL East over the second-place Philadelphia Phillies and an eight-game lead over the third-place Nationals. In the NL, only the Los Angeles Dodgers (50-25) owned a better record.
And there are few teams hotter than the Braves, who are 14-4 in June entering the Nationals series and 23-10 since mid-May. Every hitter in their everyday lineup has an OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, adjusted for park and league effects) of 101 or better, meaning even their worst regulars are still above league-average (100). FanGraphs’ computer algorithm estimates their chances of winning the division at 70.7 percent and making the playoffs at 87.6 percent.
The Braves, in other words, had the luxury of looking ahead to a potential postseason run, and it is there that Keuchel’s value to them could soar. Not only is he a seasoned veteran of October’s crucible, going 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in three postseasons with the Houston Astros — including the 2017 World Series title — but the Braves also viewed their potential postseason rotation with healthy skepticism, owing largely to its youth.
“If we were to make the playoffs, who would be the four starters for us? We weren’t sure,” Anthopoulos said. “We have two young guys in [Mike] Soroka and [Max] Fried. How are those guys going to hold up for the next four months? Even if they’re healthy, how is the workload going to affect them?”
In the bigger picture of organizational philosophy, Keuchel was the quintessential Braves pickup — a short-term, high-upside veteran, perhaps a few years beyond his peak, but just the piece the Braves needed to plug a critical hole.
More than most other top-tier teams, the Braves’ roster is built from the inside, with a solid core of homegrown talent arriving out of a farm system considered one of the best in the game. The twist is that this core was drafted and developed by four different regimes.
Left over from John Schuerholz, who stepped aside as head of the team’s baseball operations in 2007, are first baseman Freddie Freeman and starter Julio Teheran. From the Frank Wren era (2007-14) are second baseman Ozzie Albies, center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., and utility man Johan Camargo. From the John Hart/John Coppolella era (2014-17) are Soroka, reliever A.J. Minter and left fielder Austin Riley. Shortstop Dansby Swanson technically doesn’t get counted as homegrown, because he was drafted by Arizona and acquired by the Braves in a trade in 2015, but he came through their farm system.
As for Anthopoulos, who came on board in November 2017, his charge has been largely to fill in around that core. After the Braves became surprise NL East champions in 2018 — before being eliminated in four games by the Dodgers in the division series — the mission became constructing a more complete roster that could both survive the regular season grind and, if everything went as hoped, sustain a longer run through October.
The offseason additions were critical if not splashy: Third baseman Josh Donaldson, four years removed from his 2015 AL MVP and signed to a one-year deal, has started to heat up and is hitting .281 with a .352 on-base percentage, .672 slugging percentage and seven homers in his past 16 games. Veteran catcher Brian McCann, a longtime Brave brought back on a one-year deal largely to mentor the Braves’ young pitching staff, is also having his finest offensive season in a decade. And veteran right fielder Nick Markakis, re-signed to a one-year deal following an all-star season in 2018, is putting up similar numbers and playing his typical, Gold Glove-caliber defense.
Those three signings cost the Braves just $31 million — a fraction of the $403 million the Phillies spent on Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson — and left plenty of room for more. And by getting Keuchel at a bargain, short-term cost, the Braves still could make a move or two before the July 31 trade deadline.
By bringing Keuchel on board so late, with the team already firmly in first place and its clubhouse culture already established, the Braves don’t need him to do anything more than take the ball every fifth day.
“It’s hard to come in in midseason and hit the ground running,” Anthopoulos said. “He didn’t have spring training with us. He’s coming into a new clubhouse. Building chemistry in there takes time. He’s a great guy, but first and foremost we got him for what he can do to help us.”
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