I want to play a game.
Imagine you’re the near-billionaire owner of a Major League Baseball team. You literally have so much money that if you decided to pull a Joker and burn $100,000 in cash every day, you would have a nice campfire going for the next 19 years.
Now, imagine your team actually has a legitimately great shot at the playoffs. Wow! Good job, excessively rich person! Your hard work of writing checks has paid off! But don’t start celebrating just yet—even though your team is, say, tied for first in the National League’s Central Division with a record of 23-16, your starting pitchers haven’t exactly made other teams shiver their timbers so far. In fact, your rotation has combined for a measly 1 WAR over 38 starts, good for 26th best in baseball. To put it another way, your rotation is just three spots ahead of *shudders* the San Francisco Giants.
Let’s just say you’re not likely to…brew…much success with your current starting five.
Okay, you’re Mark Attanasio, and the team you own is the Milwaukee Brewers.
Right now, Milwaukee’s starting rotation consists of four unproven youngsters and Jhoulys Chacin. They have a combined FIP of 5.15 and a ghastly strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.36, good for 24th best in the league and 11 spots behind *shudders* the San Francisco Giants. It’s barely 40 games into the season, and the Brewers could desperately use an upgrade.
So, what do you do, Mark “I’m Worth More Than the Combined Net Worth of Everyone Reading This Article” Attanasio? Do you call someone up from the minors? Trade prospects for a player who just happens to share a name with your state’s capital? Sign some washed-up vet for cheap and hope that dead cat can bounce you into the World Series?
Or do you sign a former Cy Young winner who’s put up nearly 19 bWAR in the last five seasons?
Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying it is absolutely bonkers that two months into the season, Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent. After Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and maybe Patrick Corbin, Keuchel was the premier free agent this off-season, a surefire upgrade for any starting rotation. And he still is!
Just look at this bottom 10 in starting rotation WAR:
That’s two 1st place teams (Phillies, Brewers), two 2nd place teams (Rangers, Cardinals), and two teams that have a real chance to contend in relatively weak divisions if things go right (White Sox and Angels). And that doesn’t include the Athletics, Braves, Red Sox, or Mariners, all of which barely crack the top 20. Or the Yankees, which basically looks like the Looney Tunes’ bench in Space Jam right now.
While it might not make sense for all these teams to acquire another starting pitcher (the Red Sox face an uphill battle after a rough start, the Mariners might suck now, and the Braves can afford to wait a year and just sign Madison Bumgarner), each one of them could use a Dallas Keuchel—and there is no question that each one of them can afford him.
So why is Keuchel still a free agent?
Like any pitcher over the age of 30, there are injury concerns. For pitchers not named Max Scherzer, it’s a matter of when, not if, a pitcher will break down. Keuchel is no exception, pitching through a nagging shoulder injury in 2016 and dealing with neck and foot injuries in 2017 (though he was still good for 4.2 bWAR that year).
Still, injury concerns didn’t stop the Dodgers from extending Clayton Kershaw or the Mariners from signing Yusei Kikuchi to a guaranteed 4-year, $56 million contract.
Well, how about declining performance? It’s true that Keuchel’s numbers took a slight tumble last year—his K/9 rate dipped, as did his GB%, and his ERA increased by nearly a run over the previous year.
But outside of those numbers, none of his other peripherals show any sign of impending doom: He’s still a control freak who doesn’t give up walks and home runs, his velocity hasn’t dipped, and his FIP last year was a nice 3.69. The guy is just about perfect for limiting baserunners and big flies, especially in hitter-friendly parks. Like, say, a certain beer-and-sausage themed park.
What’s the real reason, then? I’ll let Keuchel answer that for himself:
Now, I’m not looking to sit out this whole year. I wasn’t looking to sit out at all. But we are in this situation right now. I would love to sign tomorrow. I would love to sign right now. Or, I might have to wait until this draft pick comes off me.
Ever since MLB owners discovered the Ferengi’s Rules of Acquisition a few years back, they have—rightfully, in a purely business sense—underpaid or outright avoided free agents slapped with a qualifying offer. The top-tier superstars have been fine—Harper did (briefly) receive a record-setting contract, after all—but the next tier of players have borne the brunt of depressed salaries for free agents. It’s why Yasmani Grandal could only scrum together a one-year deal. It’s why, like Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned.
Don’t be surprised if Keuchel signs with a team at the stroke of midnight on June 2—the very moment when the qualifying offer’s draft pick penalty will no longer apply. Never mind that four starts from a two-time All-Star pitcher could be the difference between a team making the playoffs or not. In this current iteration of professional baseball, paying actual money to win is bad business. To quote the Rules of Acquisition: “Only fools pay retail.”
But I would be remiss to exonerate the players here. The MLBPA allowed the qualifying offer to be implemented in 2012; worse, it didn’t even bother to fight for anything more than surface-level changes when the CBA was renegotiated in 2017. It has been clear for years now that the qualifying offer’s sole purpose is to depress salaries for free agents. The fact that players didn’t do more to fight this piece of chicanery is as much on them as it is anyone else. And if they do nothing in 2021…
Well, all I can say is I hope that the travesty of Keuchel’s free agency is a wake-up call for every player.