Dallas Keuchel is the best remaining pitcher on the free agent market, and it isn’t close. Coincidentally, the Twins, who have a chance to compete in the A.L. Central, are still a bit pitching-starved.
After superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the former Cy Young Award recipient and Houston Astros ace is the next-best player on the market. And for their part, the Twins are still sitting far below their expected payroll.
Sure, the projected starting rotation is passable, and certainly better than most Twins rotations in recent memory. But things will have to break favorably for it to be anything better than an average rotation; one that wouldn’t just be average enough for the offense to drag the carcass of the pitching staff into the postseason, but a staff that would actually help raise the Twins’ ceiling for the 2019 season.
First, let’s take a look at Keuchel.
The Case for Keuchel
At 31 years old, Keuchel is in the midst of his prime. On the surface, his 2018 campaign seemed just okay, as he finished 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. And while that performance would have made him one of the Twins’ top three starting pitchers, Keuchel’s season was actually a bit more promising than the raw numbers suggest at first glance.
First of all, Keuchel ate up 204 2⁄3 innings. While “innings eaters” are still all too frequently overrated, it was a positive sign coming off of a 2017 season in which Keuchel threw only 145 2⁄3 innings and a 2016 campaign that saw him clock in at 168 innings. The fact that he was able to bounce back from two injury-marred seasons with 200+ innings in his age-30 season matters.
Additionally, Keuchel threw the ball harder than he had in both 2016 and 2017. When Keuchel won the Cy Young award back in 2015, his average four-seam fastball clocked in at 90.5 miles-per-hour. That speed dipped to 89.3 in 2016 and 89.6 in 2017. But last year, Keuchel’s fastball was back up to 90.2 miles-per-hour, and while Keuchel has never been considered a dominant strikeout pitcher who relies on the speed of his fastball, velocity obviously matters and is a key indicator of a pitcher entering a decline phase.
That means that a 31-year-old Keuchel is not exactly an ultra-risky signing. If the worst-case scenario is something like his 2016 season (9-12, 4.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP), then he’d still be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Twins. Even in that season, Keuchel’s worst since his breakout 2015 campaign, he managed an xFIP of 3.87, which would have been the best mark on the Twins’ staff in 2018.
That last bit should answer the question of whether or not Keuchel is a fit in the Twins rotation; there really isn’t any question about that.
But for the sake of exercise, let’s take a quick spin through the projected rotation.
The Twins’ projected starting rotation
Jose Berrios is the ace of the staff. He was an All-Star last year and is entering his age-25 season looking to throw 200-plus innings for the first time in his career as he seeks some additional consistency. He clearly has the most impressive upside of anyone in the rotation, and while he profiles more like a number two starter on a true playoff contender, the Twins will hope that he makes another mini leap in 2019.
Kyle Gibson is the de facto number two starter after somewhat of a breakout year in 2018, but the peripherals and Gibson’s history suggest that he’s a number three starter with only a sliver of remaining upside. If he truly figured some things out with his four-seam fastball last year and found some confidence, than there’s a chance he could outperform last year’s numbers once again. It just doesn’t seem likely.
Jake Odorizzi, on the other hand, under-performed last year in what was the worst season of his career. Assuming he has a bit better luck in 2019 and maintains his improved strikeout rate from a year ago, he should perform right in line with his solid numbers that he’d posted in Tampa Bay, making Odorizzi a great number three starter with a bit of remaining upside as he enters his age-29 season.
That bring us to the two wildcards in Michael Pineda and Martin Perez. Pineda, of course, missed all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. It’s unknown what the Twins will receive from him, but he was a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter with the Yankees for long stretches from 2014 to 2017. He just turned 30 so the upside is probably limited, but Pineda will add a swing-and-miss element to the Twins rotation that has been missing for a long time.
Perez, who has never been much more than a solid back-of-the-rotation presence throughout his seven-year career, was a bit of a curious signing back on January 30 when he inked a $3.5 million deal with a hefty $7.5 million team option ($500k buyout) for 2020.
Perez is coming off the worst season of his career last year, when he finished the year with a 6.22 ERA. He missed the first part of the season with a broken non-throwing elbow and struggled mightily upon his return before finding success in the bullpen late in the season. It certainly appears as though Minnesota intends to use him as a starting pitcher, however, which implies that the Twins front office must see something in Perez that the numbers don’t bear out.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Twins fans: the rotation is a mix of guys who are solid No. 2 through 4 starters in a playoff rotation. That’s it.
The only real saving grace here is the upside of Berrios, hope that Gibson is really a No. 2 and not a No. 3, and that Odorizzi has a bit of a bounce-back year. But the back-end of the rotation is a bit unstable and could use another legitimate contender for a rotation spot.
Adding Keuchel to this bunch would elevate everyone. He could slot in as the No. 2 starter, bumping both Gibson and Odorizzi down a slot and taking the pressure off of Pineda’s recovery. He could take his time, perhaps even starting in the bullpen, while Perez fills the No. 5 spot. Then, if Perez stumbles and/or Pineda is ready to go, Perez can join the bullpen, where he flourished last year in Texas.
As of last December, Keuchel was reportedly seeking a five-year contract. That’s a bit much for a 31-year-old who hasn’t been ultra-consistent of late, but if the Twins could offer a shorter-term deal with more money (maybe something like three years and $60 million with an option for a fourth year) then they could be in business in the A.L. Central.