ST. LOUIS — Atlanta Braves starter Dallas Keuchel is on a mission — and it’s not just to win the World Series this postseason in the MLB playoffs. That goes without saying, as his Braves are 2-1 in their best-of-five National League Division Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. Keuchel has more far-reaching desires — to further expose a system that everyone already knows is broken.
“This is whole draft-pick compensation thing went from a throw-in for a team losing a player, to is he really a free agent now?” Keuchel told ESPN this past weekend. “How can you be free if there is a draft pick attached to you? And why do they value draft picks so much when the percentage of picks who make the league, and are better than you, is what, like .01 percent? There are so many things wrong.”
Keuchel, of course, is talking about his headline-making offseason, when he and fellow free agent Craig Kimbrel didn’t get signed at all, having to wait until after the June amateur draft. At that point, by rule, teams did not have to give up a draft pick to get them. Keuchel signed with the Braves; Kimbrel, the Cubs. The big difference between the two cases is Keuchel doubled down on the gamble, signing for just the one year — or four months to be exact — while Kimbrel signed for three years.
Betting on himself for a half-season of baseball, with no spring training, combined with signing for just that one year might seem like a huge risk. But going back into the marketplace is part of the point Keuchel wants to make. Again, by rule, he can’t be offered a second qualifying offer, thus there won’t be any draft-pick compensation attached to his free agency this winter.
“I still have to go back into the zoo [free agency] but I figured if this offseason doesn’t present more offers, more swiftly, like the NBA or the NFL, then the normal fan will see exactly what’s going on,” Keuchel said. “That’s what I want people to see.”
Keuchel knows the fine line he’s walking. Too often it sounds like greed on the part of a player. But his point is that precedent used to be the rule in negotiations, whether that applied to arbitration or free agency. As far as the latter issue is concerned, it has been thrown out the window.
“I saw comps of mine get paid in previous years, so when your bell rings and you’re up for compensation, that’s always been what teams go off on — until the last two years. What’s happening and why is this going on? It’s not just us being the bad guys.”
So far, Keuchel’s gamble has paid off. At least to a certain extent. His numbers over 19 starts with the Braves compare favorably to previous years when he’s had full spring trainings. See Kimbrel for the other side of that coin. Keuchel kept himself ready, training in Newport Beach, staying close to his agent, Scott Boras.
“The more I waited, the more I knew playoff teams would call,” Keuchel explained. “The fair pay is half of it, and that’s what I didn’t think I was getting in the offseason, but I wanted to play for a playoff team.
“By the time April 15 rolled around I figured I only have a month and a half to wait.”
As for the one-year, $13 million prorated gamble, Keuchel has made peace with it.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but when you’ve done it [pitched] for quite a few years and you know what you’re doing, it’s actually not that nerve-wracking,” Keuchel said. “I know I can compete and perform like I normally do. It’ll creep up in my mind once in a while when I talk to Scott — we converse about it a little bit — but when you’re playing, it’s the last thing you’re thinking about.”
Keuchel is multi-tasking during the playoffs so far. Pitching in Game 1 and returning for Game 4 — which might have looked like a long shot for the pitcher when he was home back in April and May — while discussing the inequities of the system. He’ll get a national stage for both endeavors.
“I hope the message is we’re human beings as well, and we have a short amount of time to invest in ourselves, and I want people to know its ok to bet on yourselves and stand your ground,” Keuchel stated.
Obviously, earning another ring drives Keuchel but so does everything that has happened to him over the last 12 months. It won’t be at the forefront of his mind when he takes the mound on Monday, but it’s there. Like any athlete on the receiving end of some disrespect, it fuels him.
“For sure a lot of it still drives me, and I’m not one to come out and just be flamboyant about the whole situation,” Keuchel said before the series began. “I mean, when the time comes, I think a lot of us should be as players. But one of the pros about it is that I think if this offseason played out a different way, and I were to accept a four- or five-year deal, I wouldn’t be right here.”
And that’s why Keuchel has no regrets. The Angels were after him, along with a few other teams, for a multi-year deal, but undervalued, at least in his mind. And most certainly compared to others who signed at a similar age and production. They’re home, and he’s still playing.
“I had a couple of offers from teams that probably weren’t going to make the playoffs, and they didn’t,” Keuchel explained. “And I had my eye on this team. … For whatever reason, I feel like I’m in the best possible scenario for myself.
“But at the same time, in the back of my tiny little head, I’m sure there’s a lot of factors that still drive me, and the offseason is definitely up in the forefront.”