It’s March 16th and two of the biggest free agent pitchers on the market still haven’t signed. Dallas Keuchel is a former Cy Young award winner, a 2X all-star, and a 4X gold glover. Keuchel wasn’t the best starting pitcher on the market but he is solid number 3 in the rotation for any team. The other is Craig Kimbrel, a 7X all-star, 3X top reliever award winner, and one of the best relief pitchers in major league history. Why haven’t they signed, where will they sign, and when will they sign?
Why haven’t they signed?
This is a complicated answer. For Kimbrel, he came off a postseason where he was dreadful to cap off a rough 2nd half. Kimbrel had a 4.57 ERA in 21.2 2nd half innings last year. He still had 34 strikeouts but his BB/9 rose from 3.54 to 6.23. That’s concerning but you’d give him a pass if his demands were low. However, that’s where a problem comes up.
Reports came out that Kimbrel was looking for 100 million to start the off-season. Given how teams now evaluate free agents, (what you will do vs. what you did) that contract was never going to happen. Relievers are streaky at best and Kimbrel’s most recent effort put a bad taste in the team’s mouths. He then lowered his offer to Aroldis Chapman-like money (5 years 86 million). That’s still a hard ask on a reliever in today’s market. Yet, Kimbrel might be worth it for the right team.
For Keuchel, it appears the way teams evaluate free agents has hurt him more than anyone. He is coming off a season where he had a 3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and 108 ERA+. However, he gave a baseball-leading 211 hits. Keuchel is a groundball pitcher and did have a 22.4% soft contact rate which was above his career average. Unfortunately, Keuchel is not a top end of the rotation guy to most teams. He was seeking top of the rotation money to start the year as he was looking for a 5-year deal.
Keuchel still should have been signed by now. He knows how to pitch consistently and has some great postseason pitching performances. In a time where we value guys who can throw with great velocity, Keuchel is a throwback. Around 18.4% of his pitches are around the edge of the strike zone according to baseball savant. He still limits the walks with a 2.6 BB/9 and that should be appealing to teams.
So where do these 2 free agents go?
Where will they sign?
This is tough. If you’re a borderline playoff team with a subpar bullpen, Kimbrel should be appealing to you. Given the Red Sox are not interested, that leaves teams like the Angels, Rockies, and Twins. All 3 are in the bottom half of the league in projected bullpen fWAR according to Steamer projections. Out of those 3 teams, the Twins probably make the most sense. A signing of Kimbrel makes them competitive in a division that isn’t very good. If Buxton and Sano can bounce back, then Kimbrel may put them over the edge in the postseason.
For Keuchel, taking a look at some of the top defenses off Steamer and Fangraphs, the Angels, Braves, and Padres are all in the top 10 for defenses. All have a need for pitching, but the Braves are hesitant to give up a pick for Keuchel or Kimbrel. The Angels haven’t seemed to be interested in spending big money on pitching given their tough contracts. So, the Padres actually make sense. He may be the number 1 there, but he can help mentor the bulk of young pitching prospects that they have and could help them take the next step.
When will they sign?
The simple response is, I have no idea. One would think soon, but there have been no reports recently on either of them. The last report came about a week or two ago on Keuchel being offered a 2-year deal from the Astros. Nobody has been attached to Kimbrel in a long time. With the season around the corner, a team could look to sign either of them to beef up their chances. However, these players are a sign of a very unhealthy free agent system in baseball.
Credit for Kimbrel report on 100 million (https://bit.ly/2Hz1q1S)
Credit for Keuchel report on 2-year offer from Astros (https://bit.ly/2HDwQUH)
Credit for Keuchel report on a 5-year contract (https://bit.ly/2JefjVE)