John Middleton might have been willing to “be a little bit stupid” with his money this offseason, as he told USA Today, but the Phillies’ principal owner drew the line at starter Dallas Keuchel and his audacious demands. Keuchel reportedly wanted six or seven years and $120 to $140 million; this, for a pitcher showing signs of decline, and who would be 36 or 37 when the deal expired.
Middleton ended up giving Bryce Harper “stupid money,” but avoiding Keuchel looks like a smart-money decision. And the Phillies will have lots of chances to make themselves look even smarter.
Keuchel signed with Atlanta on Friday: One year at $21.21 million, prorated to $13 million for the rest of the season. The Phillies face the Braves in five more series this season, beginning this weekend.
There is a slight chance that Keuchel will make his season debut against them, which would mean he could face them as many as five times before the playoffs. Keuchel is scheduled to make a start at class-A Rome (Ga.) Monday night, and must be promoted to the big-league team by June 18. The Braves stand one game behind the Phillies in the NL East.
Each time he starts, the Phillies will revisit their offseason evaluation, as presented by two league sources:
“For his asking price, we think what we’ve got is just as good as what he is. And what we’ve got is getting better. He’s not.”
League sources said this spring that the Phillies never seriously considered Keuchel a multiyear option; in fact, they never considered him worth anything approaching $20 million for even one season. One year, at maybe $6 or $7 million. Similarly, they weren’t (and aren’t) eager to pursue a trade for Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner, 29, who makes $12 million this year. Sure, it would be nice to have a lefthander in the rotation, but they preferred to stand pat with their developing right-handers: Zach Eflin, Jerad Eickhoff, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez.
So far, so good.
Eflin, Eickhoff and Pivetta, the current back-end of the rotation, are 13-9 with a 3.77 earned-run average in 29 games. Eflin has been their best pitcher. The Phillies are 6-3 in Eickhoff’s starts. Velasquez is transitioning to the bullpen nicely. Pivetta pitched poorly enough in his first four starts to earn a demotion but he is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his three starts since being recalled from Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Total price tag for Eflin, Eickhoff, Pivetta and Velasquez: $4,187,019.
Are the Phillies still happy they kept the checkbook shut and their prospects in the system?
“So, had you asked the same question prior to Pivetta coming back from the minor leagues, I might have given you a different answer,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “Given what we’ve seen from him, the corner he has seemingly turned, I can’t think of a better No. 5 starter.”
That isn’t to say the Phillies consider Keuchel a No. 5 starter; rather, that Pivetta pitching so well makes the entire rotation stronger.
Keuchel can’t be promoted to the major-league roster until June 17, unless he replaces an injured player. If that happens, though, and if he declares himself ready to pitch in the majors after one minor-league start, his 2019 debut would come against Phillies when they visit Atlanta on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
That would create yet another money-line storyline. Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ $330 million “stupid money” man, visited his former team in Washington the second series of the season, where he was roundly booed after he rejected a complicated, $300 million offer to stay. Last week, Harper and the Phillies won two of three in San Diego, where $300 million free-agent infielder Manny Machado chose to play instead of Philadelphia — a decision that pushed the Phillies in Harper’s direction.
Nothing pushed them toward Keuchel.
Keuchel won the 2015 Cy Young Award with the Astros, but shoulder, neck and foot injuries hampered him the next two seasons. His 2018 was little better than mediocre: 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA and, most alarmingly, a 1.314 WHIP — walks and hits per innings pitched — his highest rate since he became a full-time starter in 2014.
Only one of the Phillies’ back-end starters WHIP currently is higher. Pivetta is at 1.383 for the season, but he’s at 0.700 since being recalled.
All of those numbers might worsen for the Phillies as the season marches on. Keuchel might turn out to be a bargain for the Braves.
The Phillies needed to find out what they had in their four developing pitchers, in each of whom they have some degree of investment. Elfin, 25, landed in Philly after the 2014 season via trade with the Dodgers for Jimmy Rollins. Eickhoff, 25, was a minor piece in the complex 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to Texas, but he could wind up being the biggest piece. The Phillies snagged Pivetta, 26, from the Nationals in 2015 for closer Jonathan Papelbon, plus $4.5 million of Papelbon’s salary. Velasquez, 27, was part of the trade after the 2015 season that sent reliever Ken Giles to Houston.
The Phillies enjoy full, affordable control of all four for at least the next two seasons. And they have every reason to think they’ll all keep getting better.
The Phillies might have spent “stupid money” this offseason. But, for the moment, it looks like they saved themselves some smart money, too.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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