Mark Buehrle. Jon Lester.
No matter what side of town you want to invoke, the comparisons have already come for Dallas Keuchel.
Keuchel gets comp’d with Buehrle, the White Sox legendary left-hander who helped deliver a World Series in 2005, because of style. Hard-throwing strikeout kings they are not. Elite defenders who can get the job done by pitching to the defense behind them, that’s their game.
Keuchel gets the Lester nod mostly because of what’s going on around him. His arrival on the South Side, where the White Sox are primed to leap from rebuilding mode into contending mode, seems to mirror what happened with Lester on the North Side ahead of the 2015 season. Like Lester brought a packed resume to the Cubs, Keuchel comes to the White Sox with experience as a Cy Young winner and a World Series champ.
But Keuchel is not here to be the ace Buehrle was. And he’s not here to be the franchise-defining arm Lester was, either.
“He wasn’t brought in solely to be a savior,” general manager Rick Hahn said last week. “We’re not looking to him to pitch like a No. 1. If he does, which he’s capable of doing, fantastic. But we have other guys in this rotation and other guys coming that we think have the ability to pitch as No. 1s and No. 2s, and Dallas is just another part of that rotation.”
Don’t read that as a slight against the White Sox big free agent addition to the starting rotation. It’s more so praise of a collection of young arms the team believes contains several guys who can emerge as top-of-the-rotation talents.
Lucas Giolito’s already there after remaking himself into an All-Star last season and finishing sixth in the 2019 AL Cy Young vote. He’s the ace of the staff and the favorite to get the start on Opening Day. The guys behind him bring more questions than answers at this point, but if Dylan Cease can put the rookie year growing pains in the rearview mirror, if Reynaldo Lopez can find some consistency to match his flashes of brilliance and Michael Kopech can be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery, then yeah, Keuchel will be just another part of the rotation — in a very good way.
“There’s a lot of deep prospects in this organization,” Keuchel said in the early days of White Sox camp. “I threw a bullpen (the day before pitchers and catchers officially reported). … I was very thankful that I threw mine (that day) because some of these guys were coming out of the tank throwing 93 or 95 with little amount of effort.
“The talent is endless. We just have to kind of get working on the mental state of some of these guys. Get them ready for the big league life and the ups and downs of Major League Baseball.”
But none of this is to suggest that Keuchel is going to kick back and take a backseat to the youngsters over the next three years (or four, should he pitch well enough that the White Sox pick up that option for the 2023 season). Part of the reason he was brought in was to be a leader, to set the tone for the starting staff — even if the elite potential of some of these younger arms lead to numbers more in line with the traditional description of an ace.
“There’s different ways to set the tone,” Hahn said. “There’s the ability to eat up innings. There’s the ability to come up with a big start when the bullpen needs a relief and perhaps we’ve had a couple short outings from other guys. And there’s a way of setting the tone simply by how he goes about his business on a daily basis and showing guys how to be a professional and showing guys how to deal with, hopefully, the stress and expectations of a pennant race.”
Reliability. Dependability. Stability. Other -bilities.
The young guys might have the gas, but they don’t have all those things yet. And that’s what makes Keuchel a unique and powerful presence within this group. Even in the early days of spring training, he made a habit of chatting up his fellow hurlers.
“He has naturally gravitated to giving pitchers some of his observations and insight,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He's a bright man. I mean, he can articulate a message. You can articulate a concept and maybe give insight. When you're able to put words to insight and connect with your teammates, it's very valuable.”
Don’t let all this talk of not needing to pitch like a No. 1 and providing pearls of wisdom let you believe that Keuchel is some creaky old man who won’t be a primary piece of the White Sox chase for a playoff spot in 2020. He most definitely will be. Keuchel might not be set to embark upon another Cy Young campaign like his dazzling 2015 season — a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in an AL-high 232 innings — but he’s just two years removed from facing more hitters than any pitcher in baseball.
Keuchel might not need to pitch like a No. 1 to live up to the White Sox expectations for him this season. But he might just do it anyway, whether the numbers say it’s likely or not.
The numbers didn’t much like Buehrle, either.
“Honestly this is the best I've felt in a number of years. So that really helps out the mental edge coming in,” he said. “This game is always going to be about commanding the baseball and just knowing how to pitch.
“The guys with elite velocity and elite this and that, plus command are the guys who year-in, year-out are in for Cy Youngs and this and that. But at the end of the day it's always going to be about command. That's where guys' average stuff makes them better and that's where I include myself.
“Analytics always has a tough time with me, and I think that's a good thing, though, for me as well. Sometimes it can be a little disappointing just from the fact that they can't draw numbers on me because the numbers say I'm not that good. But then again, you look at my resume and see all this stuff and you think, ‘How can that be?’
“I'm hoping to help out future generations of players, and I think this game will never change in that aspect.”