The Mets have continued to be in contact with free-agent starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, according to SNY's Andy Martino.
The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal recently reported that, while Keuchel would prefer a multi-year deal, he is open to signing a one-year contract worth more than the $17.9 million qualifying offer he rejected.
Brodie Van Wagenen did a terrific job this past winter working to improve the team's position player depth, but he has yet to create reliable, proven insurance for the pitching staff -- specifically the rotation.
In Keuchel, Van Wagenen has the opportunity to add depth, reliability and experience to his rotation, but it also comes with a variety of cons as well...
PROS TO SIGNING KEUCHEL
He is better than what they have.
Van Wagenen and Mickey Callaway expect the Mets to be in the postseason. To do that, they have said, the Mets must always carry their best 25 players and field the best guy at each position.
Keuchel will be better than Jason Vargas. The end.
The two most popular projection systems (ZiPS and Steamer) both expect Keuchel to produce roughly 2.5 WAR, while they project Vargas be a hair above league average at 0.5 WAR.
For what it's worth, the two systems also project Keuchel to be better than Steven Matz and on par with what can be expected of Zack Wheeler, who so far has struggled to continue his strong 2018.In other words, Keuchel not only pushes the current weak link out of the rotation, he also becomes the third-best starter, makes Matz fifth and gives the Mets the most talented rotation in the National League.
To put it another way, looking at the existing five, it's not just a competition between Keuchel and Vargas, but also requires answering whether you would prefer Chris Flexen to Keuchel? The way it stands, in the event of a long--term need, Flexen is first in line to hop in to the rotation. So, Keuchel vs. Vargas is essentially the decision if it's assumed that one of the current group is injured or hits a terrible slump.
The report on Flexen is that by shedding significant weight this past winter, he looks fit, is performing well and seeing added zip on his fastball. I'd still prefer Keuchel, who has a track record of success and experience pitching in important baseball games. And I'd definitely prefer Keuchel to Vargas. I assume most Mets fans would also agree.
Keuchel is 31 years old and posted a 3.74 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 2018 while throwing 204.2 innings. In the time since winning the Cy Young award in 2015, he has dealt with shoulder soreness and a related pinched nerve in his neck. He's not a strikeout pitcher, instead relying on soft contact and a lot of ground balls.
On one hand, this sounds like a pitcher the modern game will want to avoid, and that may very well be partly why he's struggling to find the long-term deal he set out to get.
That said, he still more talented than Vargas and more experienced than Flexen. And his game actually provides a nice counterbalance to the flame-throwing deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Also, in a pitcher's park, bringing in a guy that doesn't allow hard hits and keeps the ball down will only help further his chance of success.
The new value...
Keuchel started this winter reportedly asking teams for a six-year, $150 million deal, which would be in the neighborhood of contracts recently signed by Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin. This is an absurd amount of years to commit to Keuchel, who would be 37 years old when the deal runs out.
Based on linear regression, variables, comparables, etc, it can be argued that Keuchel is right to value himself being worth $110 million across the next five seasons. The thing is, no one believes he is worth those numbers, otherwise he would have signed that deal by now.
That said, according to more or less anyone I've talked with in baseball, Keuchel is very much worth paying roughly $22 million for one season. He's also worth paying around $50 million for two seasons, but it's believed he's more likely to take the one-year pillow deal and again hit free agency this winter.
The point is, he's not overvalued and could very well be a bargain when hiring him to pitch one season
CONS TO SIGNING KEUCHEL
What happens to Vargas?
In the event Keuchel walks through the door, making more than $20 million, it pushes aside Vargas and the one-year, $8 million remaining on his deal. This shouldn't matter, but for some reason it does to people who care about sunk costs -- as all those running baseball teams do.
Vargas, at 36 years old, has said he's open to any role that helps the team win, but he also has bristled on record when asked about his ability to pitch in the bullpen. Like most veteran starting pitchers, Vargas has said he isn't in the habit of quickly warming up and entering a game without multiple days to mentally and physically prepare. In other words, in his mind and body, he's a starting pitcher, which means moving him to the bullpen could actually negate some benefits of adding Keuchel.
Therefore, Vargas would likely end up killing time in the bullpen, taking up a usable roster spot and waiting for a spot start or entering a game in long relief. Personally, I have no problem with this. It's needed and, last I checked, creates depth. But, it's now less common on rosters than it was just 10 years ago. But it's the only logical place to stash Vargas unless he is forced on to the IL or cut.
To sign Keuchel, it will mean the Mets exceeding the $206 million Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) for the first time in history. In case you missed it, the luxury tax number is based on the average annual value and all potential benefits of each contract given to players on the entire 40-man roster.
The CBT is not determined by the current year's payroll, which for the Mets, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, is $158 million. However, their 2019 40-man CBT is counted as $195 million.
This matters only if Van Wagenen is pushing the limit of his 2019 budget.
In addition to the payroll, budget and CBT issues, signing Keuchel also means losing a second round draft pick this year because he rejected a qualifying offer from the Astros. This isn't the end of the world, but for a front office that is trying to add young talent in their vision, it would help to have as many draft picks as possible.
What would I do...
Teams exceeding the CBT for the first time must pay a 20 percent tax on all overages. The thing is, while Keuchel will add $22 million in real dollars to this year's payroll, it will only cost the Mets a $2 million CBT penalty. So, exceeding the CBT should not be considered a major deal to the Mets.
That said, if Van Wagenen has only a bit of wiggle room to add talent this summer, signing Keuchel now and maxing out his budget could be a major problem in three months.
Idealistically, the Mets throw caution to the wind and spend on whatever it takes to push this roster over the September hump and in to the postseason. However, if the only way that can happen is being careful in April to make additions in July, signing Keuchel may not be worth it (even though he is better than Vargas).
That said, if deep in the offices at Citi Field it is known that there is plenty of spending money to do both (sign Keuchel and add talent this summer), they should absolutely top any competing one-year offer for Keuchel.
What will happen...
In the end, based on the tenor and comments of people around baseball, I still think Keuchel will end up signing a contract with the Astros because 1) they need him, 2) he knows them, and 3) he won't cost them a draft pick. I see him and Houston reuniting with a three-year deal that probably includes an opt-out clause and can reach as long as five years based on options.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!