Cubs free agent focus: Dallas Keuchel

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With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

With Cole Hamels off to Atlanta, the Cubs officially have an opening in their 2020 starting rotation.

Hamels signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves on Wednesday, similar to the $17.8 million qualifying offer the Cubs elected not to tender him a month ago. That salary would’ve put the budget-conscious Cubs in a tight position, similar to when they picked up Hamels’ $20 million option for 2019 last offseason.

The Cubs could address their rotation vacancy with internal candidates Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood or Alec Mills. But if they look to the open market, Braves’ free agent sinkerballer Dallas Keuchel is an intriguing possibility.

Keuchel boasts an impressive résumé featuring two All-Star Game appearances, four Gold Gloves, a Cy Young and a championship — all coming from 2014-18 with the Astros. He’s reliable and durable, holding a 3.33 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 1.198 WHIP since 2014 while making at least 26 starts in four of those seasons. The lone exceptions are 2017 (23 starts) and 2019 (19).

Keuchel missed time in 2017 with a pinched neck nerve, the only time he’s hit the injured list as a big leaguer. He remained a free agent into June last season, like Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel. Both signed deals after the draft pick compensation attached to them — due to being tendered a qualifying offer last offseason — was lifted.

After his extended free agency last offseason, Keuchel is more likely to accept a multi-year deal this time around. He made $13 million with Atlanta in 2019, though the deal was prorated, so it was worth about $21 million for a full season.

$13 million annually seems reasonable for Keuchel’s next contract and it'd also be more affordable for the Cubs than what Hamels earned from Atlanta. Keuchel has been good since his 2015 Cy Young season (3.77 ERA, 102 starts), but he’s not an annual candidate to win the award like fellow free agents Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. He also isn’t a strikeout pitcher (career 7.2 K/9), something the Cubs lack among their starters outside of Yu Darvish.

Starting pitchers are always in demand on the open market. Good-not-great Zack Wheeler got five years and $118 million from the Phillies on Wednesday, so someone could be willing to pay Keuchel closer to $15-20 million a season. This would likely put him out of the Cubs’ price range, if they were interested in him.

As is the case with every free agent this winter, it’ll come down to whether or not the Cubs can afford Keuchel. But if they're able to add him, they'd be rounding out their rotation with a solid, experienced arm.

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