In a season full of injuries, the Yankees received some of their worst news yet yesterday afternoon. Luis Severino has been shut down six weeks with a Grade II lat strain. He was expected back from rotator cuff inflammation sometime next month. Now Severino is looking at a mid-to-late June return at the earliest. It is entirely possible the Yankees will be without their ace until the All-Star break.
“I don’t know if ‘relief’ is the right word, but a little bit like, ‘Okay, now we know what it is.’ A little relief that it’s not going to be a surgery thing,” Aaron Boone said to Cole Harvey following last night’s game. “Obviously it’s going to take a little more time now, but a little comfort in knowing this is what it is. It appears to be treatable. Just got to take some time and hopefully we’ll get a healthy, strong, and fresh Sevy back for a good portion of the season.”
The Yankees are getting CC Sabathia back this weekend, which will help. He’s not the workhorse he was in his prime, but the guy he’s replacing (Jonathan Loaisiga) has thrown seven innings in two starts, and that couldn’t continue. Domingo German will remain in the rotation for the time being and hopefully J.A. Happ turns things around soon. Clearly, the Yankees are missing Severino.
Given Severino’s injury, it’s only natural to wonder whether the Yankees will (or should) pursue the still unsigned Dallas Keuchel. He is the best (only, really) available starter on the free agent market and, when you lose an important player to injury, signing the best free agent is an easy solution. At least among fans. Teams tend to think a little differently. Let’s talk out the Yankees and Keuchel, shall we?
1. When will he even be ready? A good question. Ken Rosenthal says Keuchel is throwing 95-pitch simulated games every five days as he waits to sign, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s MLB ready. Gio Gonzalez was throwing on his own this spring, yet when he took the mound with the Yankees last month (and Triple-A Scranton last week), he was not sharp at all. Keuchel’s pitch count is built up. Being game ready is another matter.
It seems the best case scenario here is Keuchel joining the rotation after two minor league tune-up starts*. One to get out there and face hitters in a competitive environment, and another to fine tune things and fix whatever didn’t feel right the first time out. I guess that means Keuchel could join the Yankees at the end of the month? That’s pretty good. You don’t get him right away but you do get him soon enough and for most of the season.
* Keuchel has a minor league option remaining and can be sent down easily. Players at his service time level can reject a minor league assignment and usually do, but in this case he’d be signing with the knowledge that he needs some minor league starts to get up to speed. This is exactly what the Orioles and Alex Cobb did last year. He was optioned down after signing to make tune-up starts.
That all said, I’m only guesstimating with two tune-up starts. It could be one, it could be two, it could be four. Who knows? At this point whichever team signs Keuchel will sign him with the understanding he won’t jump into their rotation immediately. The goal is having him for most of the season. The more the better, but if he needs three tune-up starts instead of two, so be it. Eventually Keuchel will be game ready. Maybe sooner, maybe later.
2. How effective will Keuchel be going forward? Keuchel is now four years removed from his Cy Young season and, in three seasons and 518.1 innings since, he has a 3.77 ERA (106 ERA+) and a 3.78 FIP. Last year he had a 3.74 ERA (108 ERA+) and a 3.69 FIP in 204.2 innings. That’s good. It’s not great, but it’s good. At age 31, it seems Keuchel’s very best years are behind him, and he’s now more of a solid innings eater type than a true dominator.
The worry here is that several underlying numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Most notably, Keuchel’s ground ball rate dropped 13 percentage points last year, his chase rate dropped four percentage points, and his zone rate increased seven percentage points. At his peak, Keuchel got hitters to expand the zone and make weak contact. They didn’t expand as much last year, so he had to come in the zone more often, and the result was harder contact.
There seems to be the prevailing thought that command pitchers age better, which is one of those things that sounds like true, but do we have any evidence is it true? Guys like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina were Hall of Fame talents and we shouldn’t expect anyone to age like them. Andy Pettitte? He threw harder as a 41-year-old in 2013 (89.8 mph average fastball) than Keuchel did as a 30-year-old in 2018 (89.5 mph).
A once elite ground ball/good strikeout pitcher losing both ground balls and strikeouts is a red flag, especially since Keuchel’s stuff doesn’t give him much margin for error. He’s a five-pitch guy and wily, and he’s proven himself in big games, but at age 31 he pitches like a 36-year-old after he loses his stuff. The fact Keuchel remains unsigned leads me to believe at least a few teams are worried about his effectiveness long-term. There’s definite value in being a 180-inning league average starter. That might only be the ceiling here going forward though.
3. So what’s it going to cost? Beats me. This past weekend Ken Rosenthal reported Keuchel wants a one-year deal north of the $17.9M qualifying offer he rejected in November, or a multi-year deal at a lower annual salary. The problem is Rosenthal cited an executive “under the impression” those are Keuchel’s demands, which doesn’t sound too reliable. Clearly, Keuchel wants more than whatever teams are offering right now.
Two things to keep in mind here. One, the Yankees are already over the $226M second luxury tax tier. Cot’s has their luxury tax payroll at $226.7M right now. As a first time offender, their second tier luxury tax rate is 32%. Effectively, every $1 the Yankees give Keuchel will cost them $1.32 due to the luxury tax. It’s real money and it adds up quick. I couldn’t possibly care less about the Steinbrenners having to pay more to field a good team. They sure care though.
And two, Keuchel is attached to draft pick compensation, which is a cost that has to be considered. Because they neither paid luxury tax nor received revenue sharing last year, the Yankees have to surrender their second highest 2019 draft pick and $500,000 in 2019-20 international bonus money to sign a qualified free agent. Their second highest pick right now is the Competitive Balance Pick they received in the Sonny Gray trade. The 37th overall pick.
Giving up your second round pick when it’ll be the 60-something overall selection to sign a qualified free agent is no big deal. Do that every day of the week when you’re a win-now team. Giving up the 37th overall pick and roughly $2M in bonus pool money? Eh, that’s a tougher pill to swallow. The Yankees could wait until after the draft in June to sign Keuchel and keep the pick. The downside is he could sign elsewhere, and you’re not getting him until midseason and missing out on a bunch of starts between now and then.
I am generally a win-now guy, so if the Yankees believe Keuchel can be effective and will increase their chances of winning the AL East and the World Series, go for it. Give up the pick. The larger question is the contract. Does he take a one-year deal or does he insist on a multi-year contract? I’d be all for a one-year contract. Giving Keuchel multiple years doesn’t excite me at all though. There’s way more downside than upside at this point of his career.
* * *
Keuchel is the only viable starting pitcher sitting in free agency and I have no doubt he and agent Scott Boras are waiting for a contending team to suffer an injury and become desperate. That is pretty much where the Yankees are with Severino. He has a new injury and is at least two months away from returning. That’s bad news. Even with Sabathia coming back this weekend, one more rotation injury would leave the Yankees scrambling.
The Yankees had no interest in Keuchel over the winter — they were not connected him to him once, which was unusual because they’re usually connected to everyone — which I guess makes sense. They like their high spin bat-missers and that definitely does not describe Keuchel. Beggars can’t be choosers though, and right now Keuchel is easily the best freely available starting pitcher. Spend some cash (and give up a draft pick) and he’s yours, just like that.
My guess is the Yankees will stick with Domingo German for the time being, and see how Gio Gonzalez looks before his April 20th opt-out. He was excellent last night and there’s enough time for Gonzalez to make two more Triple-A starts before the opt-out date. These days the Yankees are all about finding internal solutions first, and if those don’t work, only then do they go outside the organization. I have no reason to believe that’ll change even with Severino’s new injury and Keuchel sitting out there.