Though the key story on Monday will be the 2019 MLB draft, it will also be a monumental day for two key free agents: former Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and former Red Sox closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel. These two free agents have been intertwined due to teams’ reluctance to sign them, but since draft compensation won’t need to be given up as of the day of the draft, it’s almost a certainty that they will sign with new teams.
Keuchel, 31, is no longer the Cy Young caliber pitcher he once was, but with a 3.69 FIP, a 2.55 BB/9, and an excellent 22.4% soft contact allowed, he definitely should be an appealing option for teams if he is willing to sign for a short-term deal, which he is open to doing, according to multiple reports. There are some concerns with his declining ground ball rate allowed and his declining strikeout rate, but he definitely would be a useful addition for a playoff contender, assuming his transition to actually playing goes smoothly; he’s yet to pitch in an actual professional game since October. According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, potential suitors include the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and St.Louis Cardinals. Let’s take a closer look at Keuchel’s market, ranking the five best suitors based on fit, need, and the chance it actually happens.
#5: Minnesota Twins
Currently, the Twins are 37-18, possess the best run differential, and rank seventh with a 3.97 FIP. It may seem strange, therefore, for them to pursue Keuchel, but there is some logic behind it. Jake Odorizzi (3.03 FIP) and Martin Perez (3.71 FIP) have pitched better than expected, but Minnesota cannot expect either to continue to pitch at such a high level. Furthermore, this is a very young rotation; Keuchel’s experience would be useful. If not Keuchel, this is a team to watch out for in the sweepstakes for Madison Bumgarner or Marcus Stroman. Still, the appeal of not having to sacrifice for prospects may be too good to pass up for a Twins team with a relatively empty payroll.
Fit: 8.9/10 Need: 8/10 Chance it Happens: 6.8/10
#4: Atlanta Braves
The Braves are “strongly interested” in Keuchel, per Heyman. With the 16th ranked starting pitcher FIP, it definitely can be argued Keuchel would fill a need. However, the major issue with the rotation comes from starters they were expecting more out of in Mike Foltynewicz (6.51 FIP), Kevin Gausman (5.56 ERA, though he has a 3.67 FIP), amongst others. Additionally, the Braves may have a better chance of finding an upgrade in the rotation through the heavy amount of pitching prospects, such as Kyle Wright, since there’s no guarantee Keuchel will be ready anytime soon.
Fit: 8/10 Need: 8/10 Chance it Happens: 8/10
#3: Tampa Bay Rays
Following the injury to Tyler Glasnow, the Rays only have two “true” starting pitchers: Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. However, with the best FIP overall, it hasn’t seemed to bother them. Still, with Glasnow expected to miss a significant more amount of time than expected, it’s unclear if having only Snell and Morton is sustainable, especially since they are currently in a stretch of 34 games in 34 days. Yonny Chirinos (2.91 ERA/4.39 FIP) will likely regress back to earth soon, while Jalen Beeks and Ryan Yarbrough cannot be counted on heavily. At the worst, signing Keuchel would clear up the innings load on their bullpen, and better position themselves for a postseason push. However, if Keuchel performs well, Tampa Bay will have at least three above average starting pitchers, and possibly four if Glasnow comes back; they’d be extremely difficult in any postseason series. The Rays don’t usually make heavy financial commitments, but on just a one-year deal, their current interest in Keuchel suggests they might.
Fit: 8.5/10 Need: 8.3/10 Chance it Happens: 7.8/10
#2: St.Louis Cardinals
With just a 27-28 record and a run differential that ranks 14th in the MLB, whether the Cardinals want to make a big splash remains to be seen. However, this is a team that went all-in during the offseason when they traded for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and they have just the 24th ranked starting pitcher FIP (4.86). With Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez in the bullpen, St.Louis starting pitcher depth has shrunk; they’re relying on Adam Wainwright (4.79 FIP) and Dakota Hudson (5.12 FIP) too much, and don’t have a clear fifth starter. Rather than sacrifice prospects, given their current state, St.Louis should take a risk with Keuchel, who could actually be their best starting pitcher if his transition back into actual game action is minimal.
Fit: 9/10 Need: 9.4/10 Chance it Happens: 6.8/10
#1: New York Yankees
Based on multiple reports, the Yankees look to be the clear front-runners for Keuchel. Though they’ve survived major injuries to the tune of a plus-74 run differential, they’ve had a relatively easy schedule, and have just the 17th ranked FIP (4.43 FIP). There is a clear need for a veteran starting pitcher, especially since it’s unclear if Luis Severino will pitch this season. Rather than give up prospects for Madison Bumgarner or Marcus Stroman, considering they simply need a middle of the rotation starter, Keuchel would seem to be an ideal option for them. Plus, his soft contact and high ground ball rates would play well at Yankee Stadium; he’s a luxury, but a luxury they can afford and that could be of major assistance for them.
Fit: 7.9/10 Need: 8/10 Chance it Happens: 9.5/10
Kimbrel, 31, showed clear regression last season, and struggled in the postseason. His walk rate jumped up significantly (4.48 BB/9), as did his FIP (3.13), while his batting average balls in play allowed of .216 illustrated that he was the beneficiary of good luck last season. Still, his 13.86 K/9, 21.2% soft contact allowed, and FIP still indicate he’s a solid reliever; I had him ranked as the 6th best relief pitcher heading into the season. There’s some risk in signing him, considering he, like Keuchel, hasn’t pitched since October, while Kimbrel apparently is seeking a multi-year deal. Still, for a team in dire need of bullpen help, he’d be a nice acquisition, especially if he settles for a short-term contract.
#5: Tampa Bay Rays
Similar to Keuchel, signing Kimbrel wouldn’t fill a major need for the Rays; they have the fourth best reliever FIP. There is some benefit to signing Kimbrel; it would lighten the load off of Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo, and allow them to be used when needed while Kimbrel could be the closer. However, Tampa Bay needs to use their limited resources to fill actual holes on the roster; adding a bat (Anthony Rendon) or Keuchel should be the priority. Plus, it’s unlikely they would be willing to give Kimbrel a multi-year contract anyway. Still, Heyman reports they are interested in the 31-year-old.
Fit: 7/10 Need: 6.5/10 Chance it Happens: 5.5/10
#4: New York Mets
Expected to be a major strength for the club, the Mets’ bullpen has disappointed with 4.48 FIP this season. The crucial problem has been finding an effective set-up man for Edwin Diaz: Jeurys Familia has been awful to the tune of a 5.53 FIP and 6.8 BB/9, while Justin Wilson possesses a 5.93 FIP. If Kimbrel is willing to not be the closing pitcher, he’d easily be a major upgrade in this bullpen. However, with a tight budget, a 27-29 record, and a minus-15 run differential, it’s unclear if New York is willing to make this sort of splash, despite them being in win-now mode.
Fit: 7.5/10 Need: 8.5/10 Chance it Happens: 5.5/10
#3: Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies have suffered multiple injuries to a bullpen that already wasn’t a strength, including David Robertson, who was expected to be the team’s closer. Hector Neris (2.51 FIP) has filled in that role tremendously, but he’s better equipped as a set-up reliever. Given their lack of high impact prospects, Philadelphia may also be more inclined to sign Kimbrel rather than sacrifice more from their farm system for a reliever such as Will Smith or Ken Giles. They may not want to give Kimbrel a multi-year contract, but that probably shouldn’t stop them from making a major attempt at signing him; they have a legitimate chance of making the World Series; they have 3.5 game lead in the division and a plus-33 run differential, but need an impact reliever at the back-end of their bullpen.
Fit: 8.6/10 Need: 9.1/10 Chance it Happens: 8/10
#2: Atlanta Braves
The Braves have been the most obvious suitor for Kimbrel since the offseason; their bullpen is limited, and he was a star closer for them for his first four seasons. Given the bullpen’s sixth-worst FIP (4.88) and AJ Minter’s struggles (5.06 FIP), their need for Kimbrel has only become more significant. Similar to Neris with Philadelphia, Luke Jackson (2.44 FIP) could be the team’s closer, but he’d be better served as a set up man for an established closer. Furthermore, Atlanta has a rather open future budget; they are well equipped to give Kimbrel the strongest offer. Whether they want to make this type of signing with just a 30-27 record and plus-6 run differential remains to be seen, but Kimbrel to the Braves remains a very easy match to make.
Fit: 8/10 Need: 9.5/10 Chance it Happens: 8.9/10
#1 Minnesota Twins
Similar to their rotation, the Twins’ bullpen has been critical to the team’s overall success; they have the eight-best FIP. Still, Taylor Rogers (2.38 ERA/3.41 FIP), Blake Parker (1.96 ERA/4.24 FIP), and Mike Morin (0.87 ERA/3.34 FIP) are all over-achieving right now, so their success isn’t as legitimate as it looks right now. There is a clear need for a back-end reliever, and with a budget with little financial commitments, they are well-positioned to fill that hole by signing Kimbrel. This could be a World Series contender if Kimbrel pans out, and although a reliever like Will Smith would be an even larger upgrade, it’s not a sure thing they’d be able to beat the likes of the Astros and Yankees regardless. By signing Kimbrel, they’d still be positioned for a World Series push and would save their prospects. Plus, signing Kimbrel doesn’t prevent them from making a splash for Smith anyway. This is a rather obvious pairing, and since they have interest in Kimbrel, per Heyman, it’s one that definitely could and should happen.
Fit: 9.5/10 Need: 9.5/10 Chance it Happens: 8/10
Prediction for Keuchel: Signs one-year contract with Yankees
Prediction for Kimbrel: Signs two-year contract with Braves
Who Should Sign Keuchel: St.Louis Cardinals
Who Should Sign Kimbrel: Minnesota Twins