I knew that sooner or later I would write this article. With Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Bud Norris and countless other names currently on the free agent market, it only makes sense that fans would be clamoring to add a perennial all-star or Cy Young award winner no matter how well the team was performing.
Just a week ago, the Dodgers were atop the baseball world at eight and two, with Kershaw only one week from returning and Hill on the mend, it was preposterous to suggest such a blasphemous signing. How quickly the thing turn.
Fast forward to today and reality has set in. The Dodgers are just another one of the 30 clubs, with vulnerabilities and imperfections. A heartbreaking series opener that was lost on a wild pitch also claimed another starting pitcher, and it only got worse from there. The succeeding three games were humbling, as the Dodgers hobble into a three game set versus the Cincinnati Reds on the heels of a one and six week, including a four game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals, as well as a series loss to the Brewers.
With three starters currently on the injured list, the others scuffling significantly and the new, pricey bullpen addition, Joe Kelly, with an ERA in the double digits, a legitimate question has already posed itself early in the season. Is it time for the Dodgers to add pitching?
Under most circumstances, such a question in April would be unthinkable. However, with the current state of the free agent market, high profile players like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain unsigned. An adoption of analytical thinking coupled with the way in which front offices value pitchers, specifically relief pitchers, has molded a new market that is much less favorable to players and their agents.
The explanation as to why a former Cy Young award winner and one of the greatest closers of all time is simple for the sabermetrical minds running Major League front offices. To fans however, it is quite perplexing as to why a a pair of decorated arms remain unsigned at only 31 years of age. I am going to clear up any confusion and explain just why these two are unemployed.
Dallas Keuchel has a Cy Young award next to his name, so why is he still unsigned? For one, while seasonal awards and career accolades pull at the heart strings of fans, they mean absolutely nothing to a general manager of a baseball team. Attempting to make a case for Dallas Keuchel and mentioning his 2015 Cy Young award is like wearing a little league all-star jersey to high school tryouts. Forget the all-star appearances, forget the Cy Young and most importantly, forget the Gold Gloves. MLB teams are not signing pitchers to play defense, there are eight others around him responsible for that.
The truth is that Keuchel is not a special pitcher at all. His career ERA is 3.66 and if his Cy Young season is factored out of the equation, his career ERA is just five points shy of four, far from elite and much closer to mediocre. And that is not even the most concerning facet of Keuchel’s game.
While some pitchers, usually young pitchers, may not posses the statistics of an ace, their natural tools are inspiring enough that a team is willing to bring aboard such a talent. Joe Kelly is a perfect example of this. Despite a less than stellar career ERA, his velocity, spin rate, hard hit percentage and exit velocity are all elite. But more on that at a different.
Keuchel however, is not elite in any of those categories. Not only is he not elite, he is actually atrocious in each of those categories, placing in the seventh percentile of fastball velocity, nineteenth percentile of fastball spin rate and seventeenth percentile of strikeout percentage. Meanwhile, the only spots where Keuchel ranks in the upper half of the league is in exit velocity, hard hit rate and weighted on base average.
In conclusion, Dallas Keuchel is not a dominant starter. His physicals and tools match that of a middle rotation arm at best; meanwhile he is one of the hardest hit arms in the entire league. I’m not sure where Keuchel would fit in the Dodgers rotation because the rotating cast of five (when healthy) possesses no pitcher worse than Keuchel. Just ask yourself this Dodgers fans, do you miss Scott Kazmir? If the answer is no, which it should be, there is no reason to argue on behalf of Dallas Keuchel.
Craig Kimbrel on the other hand, is still among the game’s elite. One of the greatest to ever pitch the ninth inning remains unsigned after declining the qualifying offer from the Boston Red Sox back in November. That’s right, any team could bring aboard the best relief pitcher of this decade and they wouldn’t part with a single prospect. So why won’t a team just sign Kimbrel and call it a day?
As with anything in professional sports, the Kimbrel situation is not as simple as it may appear to fans. The first thing I did after cracking open MLB The Show 19 was start up Franchise mode and sign Craig Kimbrel to a three year deal, and I know I am not alone in that. However, actual Major League Baseball differs quite a bit from MLB The Show.
Quality relief pitching is imperative in winning a championship. Take a look at the most recent World Series champions, all of them possessed aces in the back end of the bullpen that were capable of putting a game on ice. With that being said, relief pitchers are the most volatile of any position in baseball.
Even the game’s best, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen have been a bit shaky to say the least over the last couple years. Dodgers fans remember the rush of blood to their fingers and the shortness of breath for much of last season when Jansen would enter ball games. Kimbrel gave Red Sox fans the same feelings last season as well. In fact, Kimbrel’s 2018 second half was more unstable than Jansen’s. With an ERA and WHIP larger than Jansen’s, Kimbrel didn’t do enough to inspire his own club to give him another shot. Instead, the Red Sox have opted for a closer by committee approach with a cast of misfit toys.
Here is another red flag.
Craig Kimbrel is a dominant closer, who has built his career off striking out batters at a high clip with a lot of velocity, while not allowing free passes to his opponents. In 2018 however, not only did Kimbrel’s strikeout rate and average fastball velocity dip, his walk rate increased. As soon as an athlete begins to show a regression in their niche, it is a sign of bad things to come. Front offices have learned that ballplayers’ skills and athleticism go into decline after age 30. At only age 31, Kimbrel is no longer the ninth inning lock he once was and if history is any indication of what’s to come, things will only get uglier.
Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel will play in 2019, they’re simply too talented not to sign with a Major League roster. With that being said, the pair are still at least about a month and a half away from competing in game action.
Due to the fact both Keuchel and Kimbrel were tendered qualifying offers by their respective clubs in 2018, if a team were to sign one of these players before the first year player draft, the signing team would be forced to concede draft compensation to the team who tendered the qualifying offer. However, if a team were to sign one of these two players after the draft in June, they would no longer be on the hook for draft compensation for the fact that the draft already occurred.
While no team has come out and said they are waiting until after the draft to sign one of these two, it is the worst kept secret in MLB next to “rumors” of a universal DH. At this point, it is not only senseless but irresponsible for a team to sign Kimbrel or Keuchel. While signing one of these two immediately would allow a team for an extra month and a half of season preparation, forfeiting draft compensation is simply not worth it to sign them immediately.
We’ll revisit this topic again in June, but for now, Kershaw is back, with Rich Hill following right behind him. Both the starting rotation and bullpen will receive a boost. And no, I am not concerned in the slightest about the Padres two game lead in the NL West, you shouldn’t be either.