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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The man in sunglasses on a patio that overlooked a pool, a fairway and then the Pacific Ocean on Monday afternoon was Dallas Keuchel, who is at the moment unemployed. In his seventh month of free agency, what he desires is a job at a salary he considers to be fair, and what he has found instead is the long conversation about an industry he is willing to call on its failures.
He did not set out into free agency intent on further exposing its flaws, he said. He did not hope to conduct his free agency as a service to his fellow ballplayers or their union or, for that matter, conduct it into May and possibly June or whenever.
The plan, for what in his view was a relatively small and reasonable share of the profits, was to pitch.
He is 31 years old. He has been told his body is healthy, he said, down to every last MRI and every last subsequent sinkerball. A summer ago he was pitching to a 3.74 ERA across more than 200 innings, not his best — his best came with a Cy Young Award trophy, his next-best with a World Series parade — and still more than presentable. It is not a time to be pitching to junior college players every fifth day, even if they are game, even if it is what prepares him for a season already six weeks gone.
But, it seems, the common good came looking for him and his conscience, and the fairly simple act of looking out for himself grew into the broader cause that is player rights, and the conversation of his worth suddenly was about everyone’s worth and, granted, it could all change in a productive phone call. Until then, he said, he will not allow draft-pick compensation to live without a battle, he will not settle, he will not make it easier for the next lowball offer to carry itself as honest and legitimate.
“If you would’ve asked me on the first day of free agency, I would have said no way I’d be here on May 6,” Keuchel told Yahoo Sports on Monday afternoon. “This was not the plan at all. I would love to be out there playing ball and helping a team win. Because, to my career at this point, I’ve done more winning than I have losing and at a much higher clip. So what team wouldn’t want me to be out there? Am I the best at this point in time? No. But am I more than or better than some of the offers I’ve been given? Absolutely. That’s not me being greedy. That’s just my compensation in the market from what the analytical data is telling me. I didn’t come up with this. The front offices came up with this. So now they’re trying to tell me I’m less than what the analytical data is saying. How is that possible?”
What began as a common enough free agency — decorated pitcher seeks job in healthy industry — became a curiosity. That, then, over time, became a mystery, which is where one assumed it would end. It did not. It had so much more ground to cover. Players signed, some of them while grumbling. Spring training opened and closed. Pitching staffs were built, teetered, were propped up and were built again. The season began to rising team ERAs, injuries and flame-outs.
Keuchel said he received offers, some his agent, Scott Boras, recommended he seriously consider.
“I lead the ship,” he said. “Scott will give me information in general. He gives me necessary information for me to make a knowledgeable decision on my future. … And if it were up to him I would probably be signed at this point. He wants me out there throwing, pitching, and putting up stats that are quality major league stats. I told him no on numerous deals because it’s about principle. It’s about fair market value. And I wasn’t getting that.
“When people tweet at me, saying, ‘Hey, quit being the Le’Veon Bell of baseball,’ it is a funny line. But he stood up for himself. He stood up for his well-being. And I’m standing up for my well-being as well. It’s about principle in both situations. Now, I’m not looking to sit out this whole year. I wasn’t looking to sit out at all. But we are in this situation right now. I would love to sign tomorrow. I would love to sign right now. Or, I might have to wait until this draft pick comes off me. Whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to dwell on it. I’m going to be ready to go. That’s me right now.”
At midnight Eastern Time on June 2, signing Keuchel will no longer include the penalty of a lost draft pick. If that’s where this is headed, that’s almost four more weeks of free agency. The same goes for Craig Kimbrel, who, at 30, would be the league’s active saves leader, were he active. Meantime, bullpens are bombing in early races all over baseball, just as rotations are sagging under the weight of injury and ill-prepared prospects or will be when innings limits begin to shut down the next generation of front-end starters.
Keuchel did not divulge where his offers came from or what they looked like. He said he did not enter free agency expecting his next contract to be his last. He spoke only of his disappointment in the system, in a collective bargaining agreement that allows the system to persist, in a union that agreed to a substandard CBA, and in his own gnawing unwillingness to go along. He believes he did not pick this fight, that it picked him, and so what would come next would measure the man and not necessarily the pitcher. If the excuse was the loss of a draft pick that was sure to become some imaginary superstar, he’d wait that out. If the excuse was a luxury tax threshold that leaves fans’ eyes glazed, he’d not be a part of that.
He’d only be the guy who’d come help your pitching staff at what he was worth.
“It’s not just the front offices who have all these numbers,” Keuchel said. “Players and agencies now have the access and the knowledge to do the same thing. My asking price and my due diligence is not just out of left field. It has come to me through my own career path, my own career numbers, and then what my market is valued at this point in time. To this point it hasn’t been matched. It’s been less than what it should be. And this is out of principle, what’s going on right now. I can’t speak for other players. It’s a principle for me. I’m not asking for the world.”
He watches the game, he said, “in snippets.” There are pitchers whose starts he tries not to miss. Corey Kluber is one. CC Sabathia. His guys in Houston — Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley. He enjoyed Alex Bregman’s grand slam Sunday in Mexico. He roots for Jose Altuve. Otherwise, he heeds his own schedule, which mirrors that of an every-fifth-day starter. Monday was what he called his “day before.” Tuesday he would throw 90 or so pitches in game-like conditions. In a couple of days, he’d throw a bullpen and start over.
He seems happy. He laughed a lot. He’d rather be in a uniform, he said, on a mound, drawing a paycheck, winning ballgames or trying. He gestured at a blue Southern California sky, felt the breeze, pondered the horizon, accepting for the moment the alternative.
When it all became bigger than him, he said, he couldn’t pinpoint. Maybe with the first offer. Maybe the third. Maybe when all those ugly April ERAs arrived, when he believed again he could be better than that. He didn’t want it to sound as though he was going all Norma Rae, trying to save the world for a bunch of millionaires or soon-to-be millionaires, for a few guys who play ball. What’s right is right, however, he said. He is healthy, he said. He is willing to work for a fair wage. He wondered when that would be enough, because he is ready to pitch.
After all, he said, “Why succumb to teams that think you’re needy and you’re willing to accept a lesser offer than your market value? It’s all relative. If you’re at work and you’re killing your job, nine to five every day, and you get another offer that’s less, why would you accept that offer?”
The answer, his answer, is he would not. Neither would anyone else.
“This is not a me thing,” he said. “This is for the greater good of baseball. This is for principle.”
So he was asked how far he was willing to take this and he laughed. Today seemed quite far enough.
“I have no idea,” he said.
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