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Report lists Milwaukee Brewers among three finalists for free agent Dallas Keuchel

Another high-priced free agent?!

MLB: Game Two-Houston Astros at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It would be easy for one to assume that the Milwaukee Brewers are done making major moves for the 2018-19 offseason. After the blockbuster signing of Yasmani Grandal, the Opening Day payroll projection sits at more than $112 mil, which stands to set a new franchise record as it is. Grandal’s addition fills the need for a significant offensive upgrade to the lineup, and with the club seemingly content to field a platoon a second base, as well as plenty of depth in both the rotation and bullpen, it’s not difficult to start visualizing what the roster will look like on March 28th when Milwaukee opens the season against St. Louis.

Slingin’ David Stearns may have another trick up his sleeve yet, however, if there is any truth to this recent report:

According to Paul Crane, a veteran broadcaster, reporter, and play-by-play announcer with a pulse on the Braves beat in Atlanta, the Brewers are apparently one of three finalists for the services of free agent starter Dallas Keuchel. Milwaukee is reportedly competing with the Braves and Astros, but may be willing to go to three guaranteed seasons while the Astros are offering only two and an option year. What the Braves may be offering is unknown.

Keuchel was predicted to land a four-year, $82 mil deal by MLB Trade Rumors as the second-best free agent pitcher at the outset of the offseason, though it doesn’t seem like he’ll approach either of those figures based on Crane’s report. There are reasons to be skeptical of Keuchel as a free agent, starting with the recently-turned 31 year old’s age. He dealt with shoulder and neck issues during the 2016-17 seasons, though he did come back to pitch 204.2 innings last year. The 8.3% swinging-strike rate and 17.5% strikeout rate he posted in 2018 were his lowest since his rookie season of 2012. And, in terms of bottom-line run prevention, he’s been closer to average (4.55 ERA, 113 ERA- in 2016, 3.74 ERA, 91 ERA- in 2018) than ace (2.90 ERA, 69 ERA- in 2017) in two of the last three seasons.

However, in an age where strikeouts are ever-increasing and an era when even the rich teams refuse to spend in free agency, Keuchel may be an under-valued commodity. He does possess two elite skills - controlling quality of contact and keeping the ball on the ground. Going back seven seasons to the start of 2012, Keuchel’s first in the big leagues, the left-hander ranks third-best among the 218 qualified starting pitchers by yielding a mere 25.3% hard contact rate and sixth-best by inducing soft contact 21.6% of the time. He’s also generated the fourth-highest ground ball rate among pitchers in that sample at 58.9%. Those strengths ought to fit particularly well within the Brewers run prevention system, which encourages hurlers who lack elite velocity to pitch to contact and allow Milwaukee’s precise shifting of defenders to turn balls in play into outs.

The Brewers are perhaps more willing than any other organization to overlook low-end fastball velo and don’t figure to be scared off by Keuchel’s 89 MPH heater nor his 6.7 K/9. Despite underwhelming “stuff,” the southpaw has put together DRA- marks of 86 or below in each of the last five seasons, including a 57 DRA- during his Cy Young season in 2015. The high price tag that typically accompanies a free agent of his ilk would be something that normally scares off a small-market team like Milwaukee, but if Stearns sees a possibility to mine surplus value from a player who he ought to be quite familiar with from their days together in Houston, then perhaps he can convince owner Mark Attanasio to further augment the payroll in the quest for a World Series.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus