• Exclusives

    Not the ‘K’ Pitcher Many Wanted, But Keuchel May Be Just What Braves Need

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – With every moment that followed the Craig Kimbrel signing with the Cubs on Wednesday evening, coupled with every pitch Kevin Gausman delivered that was drilled into the Pittsburgh night, the Atlanta Braves fanbase reached critical mass, imploring general manager Alex Anthopoulos to do something.

    Some 24 hours later, after an offseason devoid of a major move to upgrade the pitching staff and the corresponding months of – mostly well deserved – criticism, Braves Country can unclench its teeth.

    You have your brand new arm.

    The Braves reportedly agreed to terms Thursday night with free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel on a one-year, $13 million deal, hours after Atlanta dropped their series final at Pittsburgh to fall two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. Braves beat writer David O’Brien of The Athleticconfirmed the news on Twitter this evening, hours after MLB.com national writer Mark Feinsand categorized the Braves as favorites for the former Houston Astros ace and Cy Young winner.

    This space typically shies away from instant reaction to breaking news, preferring more of the deeper, contextual analysis, storytelling and prose. We’re not where to come for the latest headlines. However, given the depth of the Braves fanbase’s angst over the state of the pitching staff and the obsessive pursuit in many fans’ minds for either Keuchel or Kimbrel – two pitchers united by the first letter of their last name, and the fact they remained unsigned until after this week’s MLB Draft – let’s look at what the Braves hope they are getting and what it means for the defending NL East champs.

    Keuchel, who turned 31 on New Year’s Day, is a two-time All-Star honoree who won the 2015 AL Cy Young, a four-time AL Gold Glove winner and, most importantly to Anthopoulos and Co., has averaged 216 innings pitched per 162 games during his seven-year career. He helped lift Houston to the 2017 World Series championship, going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 23 starts that season, and in his career is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 postseason appearances.

    The Astros elected to not resign the left-hander, who they selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of Arkansas. Truth be told, Keuchel wasn’t as dominant in 2018 – giving up a major-league high 211 hits – but he made 34 starts, won 12 games, and posted a solid FIP (3.69), WHIP (1.314) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.64).

    Keuchel’s calling card is his ability to generate ground balls, and while his 2018 rate of 53.7 percent was a drop-off from his ridiculous 66.8 percent ground-ball rate in 2017, that’s the type of pitcher who should thrive pitching in front of a solid infield defense – and Atlanta’s is stellar.

    Still, draft-pick compensation (Houston extended a qualifying offer to Keuchel after last season, which he declined), plus his demands of a large multi-year deal scared off all suitors throughout the offseason and through the first three months of the regular season.

    In a familiar refrain for several Braves pitchers past and present, Keuchel’s first inning often is his shakiest. He posted a 6.88 ERA in the opening frame last season, a number that drops below 2.66 in innings two through four. The fact he made 34 starts a season ago and, according to his agent – the always outspoken Scott Boras – reportedly could be ready to make a major-league start in a week, makes one think the ramp-up time needed to get to the majors will be quick. Reportedly, Keuchel will start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday, one day after a schedule physical in Atlanta.

    Keuchel’s arrival spells the end of Gausman’s tenure in the rotation. Acquired at the trade deadline last summer from Baltimore, the right-hander missed time in spring training with right shoulder soreness and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. He gave up five earned runs in each of his final two starts in April, and his last two outings have been just awful: a combined 15 runs on 20 hits in six innings in losses to the Nationals and Pirates. It became clear after Wednesday’s latest mess that Atlanta no longer could retain a steady state in its rotation.

    Enter Keuchel.

    The deal could prove very beneficial for both sides. Keuchel gets a chance to show what he’s worth on a short-term deal, for a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot. He is reunited with Braves catcher Brian McCann, who has caught 30 of Keuchel’s 183 career starts (3.49 ERA, .240 opponents batting average). The Braves now have a veteran innings eater with playoff experience to guide a young staff, one that has been led by two outstanding yet inexperienced hurlers in Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

    Off the field, it shows the Braves indeed have the ability to add, a horse beaten into oblivion a million times over by fans and the national media. The $13 million price tag isn’t exorbitant by any stretch of the imagination, and Atlanta now has a key addition to its rotation. The focus moving toward the trade deadline can be solely on the bullpen if Atlanta chooses such, with the potential to also pursue an additional starting arm should the right deal with a reliever present itself.

    Seeing Kimbrel sign with the Cubs while Gausman circled the drain once again almost was too much for Braves fans to bear. One fan I chatted with at Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate’s game Thursday told me she ignored her phone once the Kimbrel news broke, and joked she would take her Braves Kimbrel shirtsey, buy a Cubs Kimbrel one, and stitch them together.

    There is no need to stich together anything for the rotation now. Atlanta landed its starter. It’s up to Keuchel to validate the over-the-top patience he and his camp showed the past eight months, and that the Braves exhibited in waiting to bolster their staff.

    If it pays off, it will be the absolute perfect move. Atlanta has placed its bet on the pitcher whose last name starts with K, and it’s the one who will start games, not finish them.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.