The D-backs have agreed to terms on a minor league contract with free agent lefty Dallas Keuchel, reports Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (Twitter link). He’ll head to Triple-A for the time being but has an eventual opt-out date worked into the deal if he’s not added to the MLB roster by that time. Keuchel is represented by the Boras Corporation.
It’s a no-risk deal for the D-backs, who’ll owe only the prorated league minimum to Keuchel for any time spent in the Majors. The remaining balance of his $18MM salary will still be paid by the White Sox, who released him late last month. The Sox are also still on the hook for the $1.5MM buyout on Keuchel’s 2023 option.
Keuchel is headed to the minors for now, but the new agreement reconnects him with D-backs pitching coach Brent Strom, who was Keuchel’s pitching coach during his peak years with the Astros. At least for now, the two won’t be working side-by-side on a daily basis with Strom on the big league staff, but the connection quite likely played a role in the mutual interest between player and team.
The 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner, Keuchel was a force atop the Houston rotation from 2014-18, pitching to a 3.28 ERA with a 20.2% strikeout rate, a strong 6.4% walk rate and a sky-high 60% ground-ball rate over the life of 950 1/3 innings. That included his standout 2015 campaign, wherein Keuchel paced the American League in wins (20), shutouts (two) and innings pitched (232) — all while pitching to a career-best 2.48 ERA. He hasn’t replicated that success since, but that was one of three sub-3.00 ERAs that Keuchel posted in a four-year span.
Despite the impressive resume with Houston, Keuchel’s first trip through the free-agent process didn’t pan out as hoped. Saddled with the burden of draft-pick compensation after rejecting a qualifying offer from the Astros, Keuchel wound up waiting until after the 2019 draft to sign a prorated one-year deal with the Braves. (In waiting that long, he shed the draft-pick compensation provision.)
It was a surprising scene, likely due to a combination of multiple factors. The draft compensation undoubtedly played a role, and Keuchel surely hit the market with lofty multi-year goals that many teams found unreasonable. He’d also had multiple IL stints since that Cy Young year and reached the market on the heels of a 2018 season that saw him post his lowest strikeout and ground-ball rates since his 2012 rookie season.
Keuchel still reeled in a prorated $20MM salary on that deal (about $13MM), and he pitched well down the stretch with Atlanta. In 112 2/3 frames that year, he notched a 3.75 ERA with a revitalized 60.1% grounder rate. It was enough for the White Sox to guarantee Keuchel $55.5MM on a three-year deal as they emerged from a lengthy rebuilding effort.
The first season of that deal proved to be an overwhelming success, as Keuchel turned in a career-best 1.99 ERA over 11 starts (63 1/3 innings) during the Covid-shortened 2020 season. Keuchel got out to a strong start in Year Two of the deal as well, logging a 3.78 ERA through his first 14 starts of the season, but he fell into a disastrous slump shortly thereafter and has yet to really recover.
Keuchel has made 24 starts since June 20 of last year, allowing runs in 23 of them. During that time, he’s pitched to a 7.02 ERA with a bottom-of-the-barrel 12.4% strikeout rate against an elevated 10.2% walk rate. He’s still inducing grounders at a better-than-average 52.2% clip, but that’s a good ways off from his peak levels. It also bears mention that Keuchel has averaged just 87.8 mph on his heater during that span — nearly three miles per hour slower than the 90.4 mph he averaged during that Cy Young-winning season.
Arizona’s top four starters this season have been anywhere from solid to excellent, as each of Zac Gallen (2.40 ERA), Madison Bumgarner (3.31), Merrill Kelly (3.66) and Zach Davies (4.18) have made at least 10 starts and totaled at least 54 innings. The fifth spot has been more of a challenge to fill. Luke Weaver moved to the bullpen earlier in the year and hit the injured list not long after. Humberto Castellanos (nine starts), Tyler Gilbert (tw0) and Caleb Smith (one — which was only one inning) have made the remainder of the team’s starts and generally fared poorly. Castellanos recently hit the injured list with an elbow strain.
Keuchel will give the D-backs some depth to slot in behind that group. He’ll join fellow big league veteran Dan Straily, who has struggled on a minor league deal of his own following a big showing in South Korea, as a non-roster player down in Reno. The Snakes also have the aforementioned Gilbert, righty Luis Frias and former top prospect Corbin Martin on the 40-man roster as options down in Triple-A.