Thursday’s hot takes: The Braves were the team that refused to spend money, that cared nothing about winning, that had as general manager a do-nothing boob. Friday’s more measured appraisal: The Braves are the team that just spent $13 million for roughly half a season of Dallas Keuchel and thereby addressed their most crying need without compromising one jot of their future.
Question: How do you like your bearded GM today, Braves Country?
We don’t know how well Dallas Keuchel will fare here. He could hurt his arm. He could take a while to shake off the rust. (His last competitive pitch was thrown Oct. 16, 2018.) He’s 31, and his best season came when he was 27. But these caveats are the sort we could attach to most any pitcher of a certain age. These caveats are all that keep us from declaring this a full-blown masterstroke today.
The Braves’ rotation had crashed. We noted as much earlier this week, and subsequent starts by Kevin Gausman (five innings, 12 hits, seven earned runs) and Mike Foltynewicz (six innings, two more home runs) only added to the festivities. The Braves’ starting pitchers have an ERA of 4.39, fifth-worst in the National League. Their much-reviled bullpen has a lower ERA than these starters, and there it is. There’s the reason that, as of the first week of June, these Braves had a greater need for Keuchel than the much-desired-by-fans Craig Kimbrel.
Teams can find a useful bullpen arm or two in the pre-deadline bazaar. A team cannot find a Keuchel there, not without having to pay a king’s ransom in prospects. If we’ve learned anything in the 19 months Alex Anthopoulos has been on the job, it’s that he refuses to sacrifice any of the significant young talents he inherited. He also inherited the MLB sanctions limiting the Braves in the international market – the same market where, while with Toronto, his team found Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – and those penalties cannot be overstated. They inform everything this organization does.
Had the Braves signed Keuchel a week ago, they’d have lost the 60th overall pick in the draft just completed. Maybe you believe that forfeiting the right to take Beau Philip, an Oregon State infielder, would have been no big deal. That’s not how MLB clubs think. Every draft pick is currency. Every prospect is an asset. The sanctions cost the Braves 13 assets, a penalty that would have defoliated a lesser farm system. As is, this organization is still playing catch-up ball, and that starts with safeguarding every bit of currency. Which is what Anthopoulos, to his great credit, keeps doing.
As noted many times, Anthopoulos is playing the long game. He knows what he has coming. (This time a month ago, Austin Riley was playing for Gwinnett.) He knows the worst thing he could do is sacrifice 2021 and 2022 for the sake of 2019, which is NOT to say the GM cares nothing about the 2019 Braves. He sees these guys every day. He pays their salaries. He brought many of them here. He owes them the right to be as a competitive as possible. In signing Keuchel, he exercised that obligation.
With Foltynewicz clearly not right and Gausman gone wrong and the 25-year-old Max Fried coming off two bad starts and the outrageous 21-year-old Mike Soroka set to log more innings than he ever has, the Braves could not in good conscience envision that this rotation would get better before it gets worse. With Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint in the bullpen and Kolby Allard and Kyle Wright not exactly dazzling in Triple-A and Luiz Gohara not pitching at all, the depth of pitching this team figured to have had been reduced to the nub. Anthopoulos needed another arm. He got the right sort of arm.
We mentioned last week that this rotation – in Foltynewicz, Gausman and Julio Teheran – included three flyball pitchers. SunTrust Park tends to turn flyballs into home runs. In 2014, 2015 and 2018, Keuchel led the American League in groundball/flyball ratio. Last year he was second among AL pitchers in homers per nine innings. Keuchel keeps the ball in the ballpark, which would be no small thing on this staff.
And now we come to the key part of this transaction, and sincere apologies for burying this lead: Keuchel is a rental. A pricey rental, yes, but less pricey than Josh Donaldson. Keuchel is under contract through this season, and then he’ll again be a free agent. Contrast this outlay with the commitment the Cubs made to Kimbrel – three years plus an option at $43 million. Keuchel will block none of these young pitchers. He won’t hamstring the payroll for the next few years. It’s amazing that he and Scott Boras agreed to this deal, but Boras moves in mysterious ways.
Keuchel is here to get the 2019 Braves to October, and the prospects of October seem mighty bright today. The team that refused to spend money just spent $13 million on the right pitcher at the right time. Financial flexibility can be a beautiful thing, huh?
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