Blue Jays: Why Dallas Keuchel is the best free agent fit

The Blue Jays need some help with their starting rotation, and I believe there’s a solid argument that Dallas Keuchel is their best fit as a free agent target.

We know the Blue Jays won’t be signing Jake Odorizzi, one of their early reported targets that they were looking at this off-season, as he’s already agreed to return to Minnesota for the one year, 17.8 million dollar qualifying offer. However, it sounds like the Blue Jays are casting a pretty wide net, and Odorizzi being removed from the market shouldn’t change how aggressive they are.

Speaking of the word aggressive, I don’t think the Blue Jays will be serious contenders for either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, even if I think they should be. I would love to be wrong, but most Blue Jays fans and writers expect that the front office likely believes the team is a year away from making that type of commitment. As a result, the second and third tiers are where the more likely targets are going to be found, and that’s where I’d place who I believe should be the Blue Jays top target this winter, Dallas Keuchel.

If we were to rank the top ten free agent starting pitchers (and how mlbtraderumors.com has them ranked, it would likely go something like this:

  1. Cole
  2. Strasburg
  3. Zack Wheeler
  4. Madison Bumgarner
  5. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  6. Keuchel
  7. Cole Hamels
  8. Michael Pineda
  9. Kyle Gibson
  10. Tanner Roark

If we assume the Blue Jays are out on Cole and Strasburg, that leaves Wheeler, Bumgarner, and Ryu in top five, and I don’t see a great fit there either. I feel like Bumgarner will want to go to more of a win-now market for the 2020 season, and Ryu is probably the type that needs to at this stage of his career, and with a shaky injury history.

Wheeler is an intriguing candidate, and one that has been frequently discussed among Blue Jays circles. It makes sense on a lot of levels and I’d be pleased if the Blue Jays could sign the former New York Met, however, I’d honestly prefer the soft-tossing lefty listed at number six in Keuchel.

First, I really think that the Blue Jays biggest priority when pursuing starting pitching should be durability (after effectiveness, of course), and Keuchel has Wheeler beat by a landslide in that department. It was encouraging to see Wheeler make 31 starts and throw a career high 195.1 innings in 2019, especially after a 28 start season in 2018, but he’s had injury concerns for a lot of his career, even if he seems to be past them now. That would concern me a little bit if the Blue Jays were investing 20 million or more as an annual salary for Wheeler, although that could be the case for any pitcher. However, with plenty of young rotation talent arriving in the next few years, an effective innings eater like Keuchel could have significant value.

I’ll concede that Wheeler’s upside might be a little higher, however, I also think Keuchel’s contributions get downplayed because of his finesse approach in a hard-throwing era of baseball. He earned 2.1 bWAR last season despite making only 19 starts (remember, he sat out for the first few months waiting for a contract), so his pace was actually better than where Wheeler finished with 3.5 bWAR. And speaking of Keuchel being underrated again, he’s actually averaged 3.9 bWAR over the last six seasons, with a high point of 6.7 during his 2015 Cy Young award season.

It’s not likely that he’s going to produce like that again, but he has a couple other things going for him that should interest the Blue Jays. Wheeler is projected for five years and 100 million, and MLBTR has Keuchel for three years and 39 million. The Blue Jays should have the money to sign either of them without a problem (or even both), but there’s no doubt that an extra seven million or so a year to play with would give the front office more options. Even though Wheeler is 29 to Keuchel being 31, so both contracts would finish at 34, there’s less risk with a three year pact.

There’s also the fact that Wheeler comes attached to draft pick compensation, and Keuchel does not (he had it last year, and a player can only receive a qualifying offer once). I’ve been annoyed by how much this has restricted the Blue Jays in the past, but with the game trending younger all the time I can understand that the value of giving up a draft pick is significant, or at least has the potential to be. Personally, I’d have zero issue with the Blue Jays giving up that pick for someone like Cole or Strasburg, but I’m not sure I feel the same about Wheeler. What I do know is that I’d rather see the Blue Jays sign Keuchel and keep their pick, rather than end up with Wheeler.

Next: Exploring Japanese free agent options

Ultimately, I see both Wheeler and Keuchel as solid mid-rotation arms rather than aces, even if Wheeler might be a little bit better. However, if that’s the ceiling for both, I’d rather see the Blue Jays spend the extra 5-7 million on another rotation arm, allocate it to the bullpen, and also keep their pick. If I had a vote, that would be enough to push it toward making a significant push to sign Keuchel, and hope that he’s willing to consider coming north of the border.

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