It’s a bit of a mystery what the Phillies’ plans have been so far this off-season with regard to improving the pitching staff through free agency or trades.
They’ve been rumored to be interested in trading for Corey Kluber. They brought in Patrick Corbin for a visit and reportedly made him a five-year offer. They were heavily involved in signing J.A. Happ, but stopped short of offering him three years, and they were said to be seriously involved with reliever Andrew Miller, but in the end, didn’t offer him enough to keep him from signing with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now, there is word the Phils are trying to sign left-handed starter Dallas Keuchel, the best starting pitcher left on the free agent market.
Once again, the Phils are in pursuit of a free agent pitcher but appear unwilling to overpay in terms of years of commitment. This time, however, being cautious is the right move.
I would have given Corbin six years and I would have given Happ a three-year deal. Keuchel will turn 31 on New Year’s Day, so a five-year deal would take the Phils through his age 35 season. But age is just one small factor here. Keuchel’s skillset doesn’t appear to mesh with what the Phillies want out of their pitchers.
Keuchel broke out in 2014 with the Astros, pitching 200 innings with a 2.93 ERA and a 3.6 fWAR that season. He then won the Cy Young Award in ‘15, going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 232 innings, good for an fWAR of 5.9. However, over the last three years, he’s had his ups and downs, with a 4.55 ERA in ‘16 (in just 168 innings), a 2.90 ERA in ‘17 (in 145.2 innings) and a 3.74 ERA last season (in 204.2 innings).
Obviously, ERA alone does not a pitcher make, and over the years his FIPs and walk rate have remained consistent. But his strikeout rate reached a career low of 17.5% last season, and his best seasons have occurred in which he has been particularly lucky on balls in play. In ‘2015, his BABIP was .269 and in ‘17 it was .256. In 2016, when he had a 4.55 ERA, his BABIP was just slightly higher than league average, .304. Last year, it was .300, and his EAR jumped as a result.
Like Jake Arrieta, Keuchel is a pitcher who generates a lot contact and needs a good defense behind him in order to be successful. And for those of you who haven’t heard, the Phils defense was one of the two worst units in the entire league last season.
However, there is reason to believe Keuchel will age well into his 30s. He’s never been a hard thrower, so a loss of velocity isn’t overly concerning. He’s never been a homer-prone pitcher and last year, he averaged 89.3 mph on his fastball, which was actually his highest average velocity since 2015. His pitch mix was right around his career norms, too, and he can still fool hitters with his deception.
Dallas Keuchel, 81mph Changeup and 80mph Slider, Overlay/Slow. pic.twitter.com/wTLmYQ2LjC— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 12, 2018
Dallas Keuchel, Wicked 79mph Changeup. pic.twitter.com/HvCIW3gnji— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 14, 2018
Adding Keuchel to the rotation would give the Phillies the left-handed starter they’ve needed and would slot in nicely as a low-end No. 2 arm behind Aaron Nola. But a five-year deal that takes Keuchel into his mid-30s seems like a dangerous move for the Phillies. A three-year deal with a vesting fourth year would make a lot more sense. A five year deal would also be more than most industry insiders figured Keuchel would get. MLB Trade Rumors predicted a four-year, $82 million deal that still seems a bit rich for the Phils’ blood.
As we saw last year, the Phillies stayed connected to Arrieta all off-season and ended up getting him on a three year deal well into the spring. Keuchel is a year younger than Arrieta, so perhaps a four-year deal makes some sense.
But perhaps the Phils would be better served to going heavy on quality relievers and ignoring the rotation altogether.
MLB.com’s Richard Justice told the MLB Network that the industry believes the Phillies will ultimately sign closer Craig Kimbrel (3:50 mark).
Kimbrel has reportedly been asking for a six-year deal in the neighborhood of $86-96 million, but no one believes he’ll actually get that. Instead, most believe a four-year deal worth around $70 million is the number. Yes, his first and second-half splits weren’t good (1.77 ERA, 3.5 BB/9 in 1st half, 5.01 ERA, 6.4 BB/9 2nd half), but his track record makes him a the best pure closer on the market, and he’d undoubtedly help out the Phillies bullpen.
If the Phils decide to upgrade the ‘pen by adding Kimbrel and one of Zach Britton, David Robertson or Adam Ottavino, that might be a wiser expenditure of resources than signing a starting pitcher you don’t love to a five-year deal.
The Phillies clearly don’t think they’re done augmenting their pitching staff, and there are some interesting options remaining. Matt Klentak now needs to be smart with how many years he dishes out to the arms that are still on the market.