Braves sign former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to 1-year deal

The Dallas Keuchel sweepstakes are over and the 2015 American League Cy Young winner will join the reigning National League East champions.

The Atlanta Braves announced the signing of the 31-year-old starting pitcher to a one-year contract on Friday night, upgrading the organization’s rotation options in the middle of a tight division race. The franchise will reportedly pay approximately $13 million through the end of the season for Keuchel’s services.

“This is a rare opportunity to add an impact starter in the middle of a year and you don’t have to give back prospects,” Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “In-season trades are hard enough. In-season trades for starters are really hard. Really, it’s our good fortune that Dallas was available and had interest in being here and we were able to get something done.”

The left-handed veteran and longtime Astros star, owner of four Gold Gloves and two All-Star appearances, will first head to Triple-A Gwinnett to start gearing up for major-league action. The team did not set an exact timetable on Keuchel’s first major-league appearance in a Braves uniform, but he must be recalled no later than June 18.

Atlanta reportedly out-bid the New York Yankees for Keuchel’s services, while the Astros extended Keuchel more lucrative offers in the spring.

“They were one of the teams I had pinpointed going into free agency with how youthful and exciting their team could be,” Keuchel said of the Braves. “I’m just glad something materialized really quick after the draft pick came off.”

Atlanta’s long-rumored interest in Keuchel checks off a notable need for the organization without dipping into its prized prospect pool.

Braves starters enjoyed a strong May on the mound, but still ranked 16th in adjusted ERA, 18th in adjusted FIP, 22nd in strikeout rate and 18th in opponent weighted on-base average. Given Max Fried’s recent hiccups, 21-year-old rookie Mike Soroka has been the team’s best pitcher by a wide margin as Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman have each struggled for extended stretches this season.

Assuming Keuchel’s long time away from competitive baseball does not disrupt his typical effectiveness, the Braves are addressing their concerns with a reliable left-hander without committing long-term resources. If Keuchel stays healthy, he should be able to make 16-18 regular-season starts for Atlanta. The veteran has been throwing simulated games in Southern California while staying in a regular-season routine and says he’s built up to seven innings (105 pitches) primarily against college and independent-league bats.

“I would expect myself, just knowing how I operate and how I do things, it wouldn’t be long at all,” Keuchel said.

Since his breakout season in 2014, Keuchel has been one of baseball’s most reliable arms.

Over that span, no qualified starter in baseball can claim a higher ground-ball rate and only 18 pitchers have logged more innings. A former seventh-round pick out the University of Arkansas, Keuchel also ranks top-20 among qualified starters in ERA, wins above replacement and home runs allowed per nine innings. Last season, he was one of just 13 pitchers to reach the 200-inning plateau as he posted a 3.3 WAR — a mark that would have ranked second among Atlanta pitchers behind only All-Star Mike Foltynewicz — and 3.74 ERA for baseball’s best rotation.

Primarily working off his sinker, Keuchel mixes in a five-pitch arsenal with a fastball, cutter, changeup and slider. In 2018, he started using his fastball and cutter much more as his sinker, which he rode to his 2015 Cy Young win and should pair well with Atlanta’s infield defense, was not quite as reliable against opposing hitters. His changeup has proven to be a useful offering as well: Opponents have posted a sub-.285 weighted on-base average against Keuchel’s offspeed pitch each of the past four seasons.

Keuchel said he started following the Braves more closely as the season went on, particularly with a couple ex-teammates on Atlanta’s roster.

“You have a great mixture of veteran leadership, young talent and you mix it all together it could be something special,” Keuchel said. “I’ve seen the lowest of lows. I’ve seen the highest of highs. I’ve seen in between for teams. This team, definitely before anything really came to fruition, caught my eye.”

Gausman will likely be the odd man out in the rotation’s pecking order as he could take his two-pitch arsenal to try and find more success in Atlanta’s bullpen, which has been the team’s biggest question mark this season. On Friday night, the team did not commit to any future rotation plans.

“When the time comes, who knows where we’re at as a team,” Anthopoulos said of the pending rotation decision. “Those things tend to work themselves out. Hopefully we’re in a position where everyone’s throwing the ball exceptionally well and we have a tough decision to make. That’s a great outcome.”

The Braves already feature a handful of converted starters in their bullpen mix — Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint and Josh Tomlin — and it’s a strategy that has worked: Newcomb and Toussaint have been the team’s best two relief options not named Luke Jackson. Carrying that many bullpen options who can work multiple innings, including Jackson, could also help avoid piling innings on Soroka and Fried if utilized properly.

Keuchel can now re-enter the 2020 free-agent market without the compensatory pick attached to a qualifying offer — an obstacle that clearly deterred all 30 teams from signing him and Craig Kimbrel before the beginning of this week’s MLB draft nullified the signing penalty.

“I think the thing holding a lot of these competitive teams back was the draft-pick compensation,” Keuchel said. “For one reason or another, every team has issues with giving up a draft pick or not giving up a draft pick.”

Keuchel is the second high-profile free agent signing that Atlanta’s front office has brought in on a one-year deal to supplement the team’s young core, joining $23 million third baseman and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson.

Mike Foltynewicz, who pitched with Keuchel during his rookie season with the Astros, endorsed the latest roster addition: “He’s in the weight room every day. He’s at the field early every day. He’s a Cy Young award winner. Who wouldn’t want a Cy Young award winner?”

The deal also reunites Keuchel with Braves veteran and former Astros catcher Brian McCann, who caught the lefty in 30 regular-season games and both of his World Series appearances when Houston took home the title. When asked about the addition after Friday night’s win against the Marlins, McCann was clearly looking forward to the reunion.

“He checks all the boxes that you’re looking for in a starting pitcher.”