The 2018 season may determine Dallas Keuchel’s future with the Astros

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: Dallas Keuchel
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: Dallas Keuchel /

While the 2018 Astros look to defend their World Series title, the upcoming season will be of great importance on an individual level.

Like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel is one of the longest tenured Astros on the roster today. While the bearded southpaw has been instrumental to the team’s resurgence, it’s fair to wonder if the upcoming 2018 season will make-or-break his Astros’ tenure.

If you didn’t already know, Keuchel will be a free-agent following the 2018 season. Up to this point, the Astros and Keuchel have yet to make much progress on a contract extension. The extension chatter was especially relevant following his Cy Young award season in 2015. Obviously both sides couldn’t agree to an extension although arbitration has been avoided in the past two offseasons.

However, the combination of injuries and struggles have dimmed Keuchel’s star power in each of the past two seasons. For example, Keuchel has only pitched past 200 innings in a season once, which was in the 2015 season at 232 innings. If you don’t account for the postseason, the Astros’ lefty has historically not been known as a “workhorse.” Alas, the “workhorse” attribute for starting pitchers has become more uncommon in today’s baseball. Starting pitchers throwing up to 200 innings or more are a dying breed.

The recent injury history is rather worrisome for a nearly 30-year old pitcher.

Keuchel experienced left shoulder inflammation in 2016 and a pinched nerve in his neck this year. And the results showed the difference between a healthy and injured Keuchel.

As an example, let’s take a closer look at 2017.

Before his neck injury earlier this past summer, Keuchel posted an 1.67 ERA and an 18% strikeout-to-walk rate in 75.2 innings. It wasn’t far fetched to speculate that Keuchel was in the running for another Cy Young award early in the season based on those results. Once he returned in late July, Keuchel posted a 4.24 ERA and a 9% strikeout-to-walk rate in 70 innings. Needless to say, Keuchel struggled quite a bit in the season’s second-half.

To his credit though, the results improved as the postseason approached. And Keuchel did pitch well in most postseason starts. If it wasn’t for him and Justin Verlander, the Astros wouldn’t have lasted long in the postseason.

Keuchel’s results and performance in 2018 will dictate how large a contract he receives roughly one calendar year from now.

This is dependent if he doesn’t sign an extension with Houston beforehand, however, that’s unlikely. Most likely, Keuchel will like to test the open market. And I don’t blame him. He should find the best deal for him.

Keep in mind that Keuchel will be nearly 31-years old by this time next year. While it wouldn’t be unheard for a pitcher like Keuchel to pitch effectively well into his thirties, the nagging injuries have to be a concern.

Traditionally, a baseball player slowly moves away from their physical prime as they age. Obvious statement of the day.

Alas, Keuchel doesn’t throw hard so it may limit the wear-and-tear factor. Once again, the injury history the past two seasons has to be on the forefront of negotiations. Or it is possible that the past two seasons were just flukes and the long-term injury concern should be minimized. At the end of the day, you just can’t predict injuries with much accuracy. If the injury bug bites Keuchel again next season, it would put a hamper on his overall value.

In terms of immediate performance, the Steamer projections over at Fangraphs currently have Keuchel throwing 202 innings with a 3.35 ERA and 3.8 WAR. Based on the $9 million a win is expected to cost next season, Keuchel’s worth would be roughly $34.2 million next season. Of course, he won’t make that large of annual salary ever, but the lefty clearly has value when he’s right. If actual performance translates to something similar, then it wouldn’t be impossible to see Keuchel end up with the contract of his dreams.

Alright, maybe not his literal dream contract, but something that would make him happy.

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All it takes is one team willing to pay more than anyone else. And starting pitchers, when healthy and effective, usually demand a high premium. If that is the case, I hold my reservations that the Astros can actually resign Keuchel. I admit that I could be wrong. Heck, I will probably be wrong. This is just one of those nagging thoughts that I can’t seem to shake. Like I stated earlier, the 2018 season may very well determine Keuchel’s future in Houston.

**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs**