If the Astros made no moves this offseason, they’d be rolling into 2018 with a rotation with some combination of Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Colin McHugh, Francis Martes, Joe Musgrove, and potentially Forrest Whitley at some point. The first four seem like locks for the rotation with some pretty solid options for the #5 starter.
Keuchel has enjoyed a nice rebound season, pitching to a 2.96 ERA with 110:43 K:BB ratio in 133.2 innings. To start the season, Keuchel started out with a 1.81 ERA in 69.2 innings over his first 10 starts, and it seemed as though he recaptured the magic from 2015 and looked like he was on his way to his 2nd career Cy Young award. That came to a quick stop, as Keuchel fell victim to the injury bug, making only 2 starts between May 27th and August 2nd. Since his full time return to the rotation, he’s looked more like the 2016 version of himself, pitching to a 4.42 ERA with a mediocre 38:22 K:BB ratio in 55 IP and a not-so-great 1.1 HR/9 (which is exactly what his HR/9 was in 2016). On the plus side, Keuchel is still averaging just over 6 IP per start after coming back.
Could this just be Keuchel coming back from an injury or is this actually who Keuchel is and he just had a good streak to start the year? Either way, the Astros shouldn’t wait to find out.
Not many teams would ever consider trading their ace right after a season in which they won their division by a healthy margin and looks like a lock to win it for years to come. However, the Astros are in a unique place. With the depth of their pitching, and the extra money they’re about to make with their playoff appearance locked, the team could trade Keuchel and still have enough depth/money to replace Keuchel with a free agent signing or one of their many pitching prospects. There’s not many things that the Astros can do to make themselves better as a roster right now, but trading Keuchel would make them better in the long run, while making them only slightly worse in the short term.
Keuchel is set to be a free-agent after the 2018 season, which means he’d most likely be looking for a big payday depending on how he pitches next season, which at this point is anyone’s guess. If he recaptures the magic of 2015 in the upcoming season, he’ll price himself out of resigning, unless he takes a hometown discount. The Astros are still a small market team, and even with the amazing season they’re having, the team is still 15th in the league for total attendance and average attendance. Money isn’t exactly flowing easy for the team, and if Keuchel pitches well enough, they won’t be able to afford to resign him, especially with the team having to resign Altuve and Springer at some point. It’s easy for a team to keep a star like Keuchel while they’re vying for a World Series title, but all GMs need to focus on the future, as well as the present.
Trading Keuchel would bring back a great return. Keuchel is still under arbitration through 2018, and will be only 30 in 2018, and he’s coming off an all-star season. Keuchel is currently at peak value outside of 2015, and it seems like he’s already starting to lose some of that value. Even with the struggles since re-joining the rotation, he’s still been worth 3.4 bWAR on the season. Every team in the league would love a pitcher with that kind of season, and many teams on the cusp of contending would most likely overpay to get a pitcher of this caliber. If a team offered the Astros 3 or 4 top prospects, and some bullpen help which the Astros need, it’s hard to imagine the team saying no.
The upcoming free agent class has only 3 top pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Lance Lynn. These three are bound to get big pay days due to the weak pitching market, which means some teams will be priced out of signing one of these pitchers. If a team gets priced out, what could they do to make up for it? Trade for Keuchel. This would be a lot cheaper and less risky than signing one of those pitchers. It would cost a lot in prospects, but it would keep the payroll down and would only be a one year investment. The Astros could really take advantage of the weak free agent market and capitalize on Keuchel’s value. A team desperate for a title, such as the Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Cardinals, or even the Cubs could potentially make the push to trade for Keuchel and help make the push for a title in 2018.