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."