Of all the teams in baseball, the Atlanta Braves made perhaps the most sense all along to land free agent left-hander Dallas Keuchel. It was that way in November, when free agency opened. It was that way in December and January as a stagnant marketplace revealed itself, and it was that way in February and March as first spring training and then the regular season dawned.
It was that way, as well, in April and May, but it took until almost a week into June before Keuchel and the Braves finally joined forces, with the 31-year-old veteran reportedly agreeing to a contract Thursday evening. The deal was first reported by the Athletic, with subsequent reports indicating the agreement is for one year and $13 million, pending a physical.
The Braves, surprise champions of the National League East a year ago, were outspent and outmaneuvered by division rivals Washington, Philadelphia and New York this winter, and their rotation deficiencies, in particular, were more than evident one-third of the way through this season. They ranked 17th in the majors in rotation ERA (4.38) entering Thursday, making their need for Keuchel as plain as any team in the game.
The Braves’ stellar young arms, Mike Soroka and Max Fried, probably will be dealing with innings limits later this season, and with the Braves battling the Phillies (whom they trailed by 1½ games entering Thursday) for supremacy in the division, the Braves clearly needed reinforcements for the summer months and beyond.
The New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins were the other contenders known to be in pursuit of Keuchel. As with veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, Keuchel’s initial trip through free agency was hampered by baseball’s compensation rules, which would have cost the team that signed him a 2019 draft pick.
However, that compensation disappeared as of Monday, with the arrival of the draft, which sparked a new round of interest in both pitchers. Kimbrel, also 31, agreed to terms with the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday.
Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young winner, went 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA for the Houston Astros last season, with his strikeout rate — never high to begin with — down significantly and his WHIP up sharply from the dominance he showed earlier in his career.
But Keuchel is also 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 career playoff appearances (nine of them starts) across three different postseasons — which undoubtedly appealed to the Braves, who lost in four games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year’s NL division series.
Should the Braves make it to October again, they will have a seasoned postseason performer to head their playoff rotation. And if they don’t, it will be fair to wonder whether Keuchel might have made the difference had the Braves signed him in January or February instead of June.