The move all but certainly ends Keuchel’s stint on the South Side after 51 games and 257 1/3 innings since the start of the 2020 season. It doesn’t seem likely that another team would claim Keuchel off waivers, since such a move would put that new team on the hook for the roughly $14.1MM Keuchel is still owed for the remainder of the 2022 season. Should Keuchel clear waivers and then be released, the White Sox would pay the remainder of that salary, and a new team who signed Keuchel could only owe the lefty the prorated MLB minimum salary.
Keuchel signed a three-year, $55.5MM free agent deal with Chicago in the 2019-20 offseason, one of several notable moves made that winter to signal that the Sox were now aiming to win following a rebuilding phase. The initial returns on the signing were great, as Keuchel posted a 1.99 ERA over 63 1/3 innings during the shortened 2020 season and finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting.
Only some flashes of that good form continued into 2021, however, as Keuchel finished with a 5.28 ERA over 162 largely inconsistent innings with Chicago last year. The decline continued over Keuchel’s first eight starts of 2022, as he has a 7.88 ERA and as many walks (20) as strikeouts over 32 innings.
Never a big strikeout pitcher even during his prime years with the Astros, there were plenty of questions about how well Keuchel’s low-velocity, grounder-heavy approach would hold up as he got older. Between these concerns and a qualifying offer, Keuchel’s previous free agent bid in the 2018-19 offseason resulted in the southpaw having to wait until June (after the draft) to sign a prorated one-year deal with the Braves. Keuchel pitched well enough over his 112 2/3 innings with Atlanta to then earn a longer-term commitment from the Sox that offseason, with Keuchel also no longer eligible for the QO.
Batters have a .364 BABIP against Keuchel this year, so there is some amount of misfortune baked into his recent results. However, hitters are also making some serious contact (as per Keuchel’s barrels and barrel-rate metrics) against the left-hander’s offerings, and his sudden lack of control also isn’t helping his run-prevention efforts. Keuchel’s 50.8% grounder rate is also the lowest of his career, though still an above-average mark league-wide.
Even with these struggles, it stands to reason that Keuchel’s track record will earn him some attention from one of the many teams looking for rotation help. A strong defensive team would be a particularly good fit for a groundball pitcher like Keuchel — speculatively speaking, a Cardinals team that has lost Steven Matz, Jordan Hicks, and Jack Flaherty to the injured list could have interest in Keuchel’s services.
The White Sox have been no strangers to pitching injuries themselves this season, and their rotation picture wasn’t helped by Keuchel’s lack of success, even though he remained healthy. With Keuchel now in DFA limbo, the Sox have Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, and veteran Johnny Cueto making up the rotation, and Lance Lynn is beginning a rehab assignment in his recovery from knee surgery. Vince Velasquez could continue to make starts until Lynn is ready, but with off-days coming up on May 30, June 6, and June 16, the Sox will get some flexibility in figuring out their upcoming slate of pitchers.
In the bigger picture, it would certainly seem like starting pitching will be a target area for Chicago heading into the trade deadline. Giolito, Kopech, and Cease have all been very good, Cueto has yet to allow a run over 12 innings of work, and the White Sox certainly hope that Lynn can return to his usual form once his rehab assignment is over. However, depth is certainly still a concern, as Kopech’s innings will be managed and the Sox can’t know what to really expect from Cueto over the course of a full season.
As well as Keuchel performed in 2020, the signing still has to be considered a misfire for GM Rick Hahn’s front office. Keuchel was owed $18MM in salary this season, as well as a $1.5MM buyout of a $20MM club option for the 2023 season. That option was set to vest if Keuchel pitched at least 160 innings this season, but that threshold no longer seems a possibility, even if it never seemed particularly likely that the White Sox would let that option vest.