Red Sox

Astros' Dallas Keuchel, Yankee slayer, seems destined to pitch in major market


Astros' Dallas Keuchel, Yankee slayer, seems destined to pitch in major market

BOSTON — One wonders what will become of the Astros, the team that vanquished the Red Sox, in a few years. Parity has been a league priority, limiting potential dynasties everywhere. 

Houston has a great farm system. But the Astros don’t have the TV revenues (or the willingness to ignore those revenues) to lock up all their stars. Even the Red Sox, backed by the NESN mint, will lose some of their core.

The first to go in Houston looks likely to be Dallas Keuchel, who can become a free agent after the 2018 season and won the American League Cy Young two years ago. 

The lefty has the ball in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night in Houston. A sarcastic sneaker collector from Oklahoma with a tremendous beard and sinker, Keuchel vanquished his ALCS opponent, the Yankees, in a Wild Card game two years ago in the Bronx. He has a 1.24 ERA in 50 2/3 innings against the Yanks in his career, including that night.

Bet you can think of a team that finds those numbers appealing. 

Keuchel could wind up in a Red Sox uniform come 2019, although it'd be tough to find the money if David Price does not opt out. Keuchel could just as easily join the Yankees.

No matter the destination, he seems destined for a big market, and not just because it'll make him top dollar. 

Everyone talks about signing with a winner. Keuchel almost has a reflexive aversion to losing. The lefty digested so much terrible baseball early in his career, as the Astros tanked, that he never wants a bite again. Big market teams can offer a near guarantee of continued competitiveness, along with, yes, the most money.

Keuchel has not only the poise for the big stage, but a willingness to share his personality and thoughts — a path to a connection with fans that many athletes prefer to avoid, because honesty brings risk.

Standing in the visiting dugout at Fenway Park last week, the 29-year-old Keuchel did not recoil when asked if he thinks about free agency.

"Yeah, yeah. I mean as human being you can only — you’re in the present. Like, I’m in the present and I love this team,” Keuchel said. “But, as a human being … you can only think about what the future holds. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I want to win. So when it comes down to it, winning is going to be the biggest factor, and then it’s gonna be what the farm system’s like, what prospects are coming up, what’s gonna be with me or coming up when I’m on a team for the last years of my career. Because I don’t wanna go through another losing season ever again, because that’s the most miserable time.”

Keuchel was as thrilled as anyone when the Astros landed Justin Verlander in August. And he was publicly upset before it, when the Astros made no big moves in July. 

Keuchel and his teammates know they won’t remain a unit for too many years.

“I’ve talked to a couple guys [about this], and it’s very special right now,” Keuchel said. “Everybody on the team knew it, everybody in the front office knew it. And that’s why I think Jeff [general manager Jeff Luhnow] and company finally went out and made the moves. Because, even though we do have a big window, you never know year to year, just like last year. I was hurt, I didn’t perform like I know I can and different injuries. Different guys didn’t live up to their own expectations. 

“And that’s what happens. But when you look at the grand scheme of things, the special factor is there, and it’s definitely been talked about in the clubhouse. It’s just more of right now, we’re gonna enjoy it until it’s no longer. But, I mean, if it were up to me, if it were up to [Jose] Altuve or [Carlos] Correa or [Alex] Bregman, a bunch of the young guys, we would want to stay together for a very long time. Almost like the Royals. They have a sense of camaraderie and loyalty to each other in the clubhouse. That you could see on the field.”

But even the Royals are about to be broken up. Eric Hosmer will be an oft-discussed name in Boston. 

Keuchel lived the great rebuild in Houston. A ground-up, sometimes messy and controversial undertaking from his front office that included three consecutive 100-loss seasons. 

So Keuchel knows that his team, as well as his own opportunity to develop into a ground-ball maestro, is a product of losing. That he’s benefited.

“There’s so much young talent in the game,” Keuchel said. “The days of being 35 to 39 [years old] and playing in the big leagues are very slim now. And teams would rather pay big league minimum to a 21-year-old than $7 million or $10 million to a crusty vet. And it doesn’t matter if that rookie’s not going to perform. It’s in the hopes of, he’s going to get better and get that experience under his belt and then become somebody. So, we are a product of losing so many games.

“I don’t think the big market teams have that DNA, just because they’re always winning. And there’s always a sense of, ‘Hey, we have to win.' There’s no rebuilding, and that’s what I see when I see Boston or I see New York. I see LA, I don’t see — Chicago did [a rebuild], but now they’re never going to be like that anymore. So the big market teams are in a tougher position to where it’s always a win-now.”

Keuchel threw consecutive 200-inning seasons before shoulder trouble derailed his 2016 season. It was imaginable that Keuchel would never return to his Cy Young form, that he would regret turning down an extension offer from the Astros after the 2015 season.

He looks great now, with a 2.90 ERA in 145 2/3 innings. (He did see the disabled list again in 2017.) But even in last year’s slog, he had no regrets passing up the contract.

“Honestly, no,” Keuchel said. “Not at all, 100 percent. Because the fact that I’ve made what I’ve made already [more than $17 million] is more than what I could ever imagine growing up. Yeah, so like, to me, when I grew up, I’ve always been in the position to where nothing is expected. And everything is earned. And what I’ve earned so far, it should last me for a very, very long time. And if it doesn’t, that’s my own fault. But that’s more than I can ever expect. 

“And the game has changed to where everybody feels like they’re entitled to something. And that’s not the way it should be. This game is gonna pass you by whether you like it or not, or how good you think you are, whatever. But my whole logic was, I turned a deal down, I didn’t think it was fair to both sides. And that’s why I have literally no regrets and I feel good at night when I go to bed. I’m very comfortable with what I’ve done so far, and what I’ve earned.”

In the age of power, both from the mound and at the plate, Keuchel relies on control and exceptional movement down in the zone. Because of that style, he may be uniquely positioned for long-term success. Not only is he a lefty, but it seems a safe assumption that his arm has less wear and tear than a flamethrower with equivalent innings.

“That’s a good question. And it's not like I’m not trying to throw hard,” Keuchel said. “It’s like, I’m giving effort, it’s just that my fast-twitch muscles aren’t as quick as Lance McCullers' or Verlander. I think my mechanics and the way I go about my business is going to allow me to pitch later in my career. I’m hoping that’s it. Because now I value the little things moreso than I ever have.

“At 29, that’s going to put me in a better position than most guys at this point for them. One of the best things is that you pitch once every five days. So what you do in between really gets you to that fifth day. And I think my body and what I’ve tried to recoup and what I try to do every day is get my self in a position to be the best I can be. And I think I’m probably in the top tier of guys who value that. And I think that’s also what’s going to hopefully get me to that next level when I’m 35 or 36, hopefully, and still in the league.”

Keuchel’s open to figuring out a deal with Houston before free agency. But it just sounds doubtful. Typically, when someone gets this close, they’re going to at least test the market.

"Whatever happens, happens,” Keuchel said. “I know the need for veteran starting pitching. I think at this point, Jeff and Jim [owner Jim Crane] would say the same thing now that we got Verlander. Veteran pitching wins. And proven winners win. So that’s always going to be a valuable commodity, and pitching more now is even hotter just because of the way the game has gone. The way it has evolved from hey, 250 innings — it’s no longer that anymore. It’s the amount of quality innings. It doesn’t matter if it’s 190 innings or 220. It’s valuable when it’s out on the mound."

Red Sox recall Robby Scott, option Justin Haley to Pawtucket

File photo

Red Sox recall Robby Scott, option Justin Haley to Pawtucket

The Boston Red Sox recalled left-handed pitcher Robby Scott from Triple-A Pawtucket Tuesday. The team optioned right-handed pitcher Justin Haley to Pawtucket to make room for Scott on the 25-man roster.

Scott, 28, has made 24 relief appearances for the PawSox this season, posting a 1.48 ERA (4 ER/24.1 IP) with 36 strikeouts, a 1.03 WHIP, and a .187 opponent batting average. Left-handed hitters have a .362 OPS against Scott, going 5-for-37 (.135) with one extra-base hit (double), two walks, and 17 strikeouts. 20 of his 24 appearances have been scoreless, including 13 of his last 14.

Since May 5, Scott has posted a 0.61 ERA (1 ER/14.2 IP) while holding opponents to a .137 batting average (7-for-51) and zero home runs. Signed by the Red Sox as a non-drafted free agent in 2011, he is 3-1 with a 3.24 ERA (15 ER/41.2 IP) in 64 career major league relief appearances (2016-17), having made his first career Opening Day roster with Boston in 2017.

Haley, 26, was selected to the major league roster from Pawtucket on June 8. He made his Red Sox debut—and his lone big league appearance of the season—on June 13 at Camden Yards, throwing 2.0 scoreless innings in a 5-1 win over the Orioles. The right-hander is 3-6 with a 3.18 ERA (20 ER/56.2 IP) and 52 strikeouts in 11 starts for Pawtucket this season, including a 2.45 ERA (10 ER/36.2 IP) over his last seven outings.

Selected by the Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2012 June Draft, he spent his first five professional seasons (2012-16) in the Boston organization. Haley made the Twins’ 2017 Opening Day roster and had a 6.00 ERA (12 ER/18.0 IP) in 10 relief appearances, the first major league outings of his career.

Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

File photos

Drellich: What makes a playoff bullpen, in personnel and in usage?

The greatest impact Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski can have from here on out lies in the same area: the bullpen.

“I think that’s the toughest part of the game,” Cora said. “The matchups and where to go. One thing for sure that we feel very strong about it, the whole platoon thing doesn’t matter, if you get people out, you get people out.”

Unless, perhaps, it’s October.

As successful as the Sox pen has been in a league of great disparity, Dombrowski and Cora have to consider how their relievers will look against their likely playoff opponents. No element of a baseball team's roster — the rotation, lineup, bullpen and bench — takes on a more disparate look in October than the relievers. A starter or two inevitably contribute in relief, and usage increases, and a regular-season reliever or two becomes a spectator.

“Somebody that was in the mix the whole time, he’s out of the roster,” Cora said. “And it’s very different in a sense. But you still need your guys, like here, little by little, we do feel very comfortable with the [progression in the] seventh, eighth, ninth.”

Relievers are already on the move, with Kelvin Herrera heading from the Royals to the Nats on Monday. But what should be sought in a quote-unquote playoff bullpen? What makes a good one, in both a GM's construction and a manager's usage?

“Players that have the heartbeat to handle the emotion of the game is one criteria that you look for,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Obviously, elite stuff is always important. Execution when the game is on the line is key. But I think the slower heartbeats, in addition to the talent, is something that I noticed last season that we excelled at, and that other teams that have good bullpens [did as well].

“You look at what the Dodgers bullpen did leading into the World Series. You look at what the really good teams in the past [were able to do], the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants: being able to handle the critical moments and apply your elite stuff at that time is really good."

There seems to be no limit to the number of power arms a team can, or perhaps must, amass. One established, elite reliever, i.e. Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, doesn’t seem to be fearsome anymore without serious backup. 

In the era of swing-and-miss, the Yankees standalone with a pen averaging 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings. The Astros are second at 10.75 per nine, and the Sox fifth at 9.73. But, those figures include people who won’t be major postseason contributors and include competition that is not postseason caliber.

Power alone, though, is not enough. 

“You need kind of an answer to everything,” Hinch said. “You need someone that can match up with lefties, someone that can match up with righties. That doesn’t always mean handedness has to equal that.

“In a perfect world, there’s going to be swings that don’t handle depth breaking balls. There’s going to be swings that don’t handle hard, lateral breaking balls, whether it’s a guy with a changeup — if you have a diverse set of relievers that can be matched up appropriately, it can be a great advantage in the bullpen.”

Matchups matter, but not in the conventional way, and that's true in the regular season as well.

"The days of 4-for-10 against this guy, they’re gone," Cora said. "It’s too small.”

The Red Sox entered the day off Monday with the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors. They’ve been successful preventing runners they’re handed by others from scoring as well, with the 11th lowest percentage of inherited runners scored. 

Dombrowski had a difficult time building bullpens in his years in Detroit. But the Sox had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors in 2017. Now, despite Carson Smith’s season-ending shoulder injury and the delay in Tyler Thornburg’s return, the team is thriving again in late innings. 

But Hinch’s general point about style is one to consider with the Sox. Over the winter, Dombrowski noted the difference in looks that Smith provided in contrast to his other right-handers. Kimbrel, Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree are all high-velocity pitchers with strong breaking balls. Smith relied on a sinker as well as a slider.

This group might be able to carry the Sox to a third consecutive division title without any help. Still, variety may be lacking.

Fortunately, the postseason process naturally provides some help. When Hinch was asked what makes a good playoff bullpen, he cracked a joke.

“Starters,” he said.

The strength of the Sox starters could be a boost to the Sox pen in a layered way. Eduardo Rodriguez’s changeup or Steven Wright’s knuckler can create a change of pace.

But the starter craze can also go too far. Cora thought it did last October.

Had the Sox come back to win the Division Series against the Astros, the turning point would have been remembered as the third inning of Game 4.

Houston starter Brad Peacock struck out the first two he faced in the frame at Fenway Park. Consecutive hits cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1. Hinch, with Cora as bench coach, played the traditional matchup with Rafael Devers. Peacock was out, southpaw Francisco Liriano was in, and he was immediately greeted by a go-ahead home run.

“We got caught up last year in certain games that probably...we talked about it, we pulled the trigger too quick on Brad in Game 3,” Cora said. “Because it was the playoffs and we went with Liriano, who was throwing the ball well, and he gives up the home run.”

It was pointed out to Cora that most of the time, Liriano probably gets the job done, that the move wasn't so bad. (Although Devers fared extraordinarily well against southpaw pitching in 2017.)

“But you know what I mean? Like, we felt that way,” Cora said. "Kind of like, we trust these guys throughout the season [to get out of a jam as starters]...We talk about it. But maybe we talk about it because he gave it up."

It's only June, but the time for the Sox to consider October pen plans is now, at least in terms of ideal personnel and a variety of looks.