You think White Sox fans are the only ones who have wondered ruefully if Dallas Keuchel will ever bounce all the way back?
Imagine being the team’s highest-paid pitcher — a former Cy Young winner — and trying to process come playoff time that there’s simply no use for you. That as far as trying to bring a championship back to the South Side is concerned, you’re yesterday’s news. That the team you signed with for three years and $55 million, stamping its rebuilding effort as legit, was essentially telling you: Stand in the corner with the rest of the taxi-squad members; we’ll take it from here.
That’ll mess a guy up.
“Mentally, it was tough at the end of [last] year,” Keuchel said. “Especially being left off the playoff roster.”
Keuchel is scheduled to take the ball Wednesday as the Sox’ fifth starter of the season. Whether or not he’s actually their No. 5 starter is partly a matter of semantics. Lance Lynn is out for a prolonged period after knee surgery. Lucas Giolito went on the injured list after his first start. No doubt, Keuchel’s services are badly needed in the rotation as it stands at present. In that sense, chaos is his friend.
But there’s a big perception gap separating Keuchel and young Dylan Cease, whom general manager Rick Hahn called “a joy to watch” and “evolving before our very eyes into a premier starter” before the Sox’ home opener against the Mariners on Tuesday. And everybody remains super excited about young Michael Kopech, who, like Cease, has tantalizing physical tools. Keuchel, on the other hand, is 34. He’s a soft-tossing lefty who doesn’t strike people out and whose signature precision eluded him last season. Is he the weakest link?
By the sounds of them, fans are even less enthused about Keuchel than they were after he let the Sox down with a poor start in Game 2 of the 2020 postseason series against the A’s. From the cheating scandal he took part in with the Astros to that 2020 dud in Oakland to last year’s 5.28 ERA and predictable postseason snub from manager Tony La Russa, there has been some bitter indignity for Keuchel to swallow since he was on top of the world as a 2015 Cy Young winner and a 2017 world champion in Houston.
Back trouble dogged Keuchel last season, when he struggled with shaping his slider and commanding his fastball. That’ll mess a guy up, too.
“If I pressed the gas pedal, it was like my stuff went in reverse,” he said. “Where we’re at now is back to normal, and it took me a little while to figure that out and go into reverse mode, putting the brights on and taking that more extended view of the road.”
As long as we’re heaving automotive metaphors around, let’s just say that it wasn’t the first time Keuchel felt as though he’d backed into a ditch.
“There were multiple times where I thought it was the end of the [road], in my upper 20s,” he said. “Then I thought I found the fountain of youth, lower 30s.”
Let’s not forget, he was fifth in American League Cy Young voting in 2020, when he was 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA in his first season — albeit a miniature one — with the Sox. But now he’s sort of stuck in neutral, in the last guaranteed year of his contract (unless he can pitch 160 innings and pass an end-of-season physical, triggering a vesting option for 2023) and already having been bumped back a day behind newcomer Vince Velasquez, who got the start on Tuesday.
But there’s an obvious way to get unstuck, isn’t there? After going from ace-like stature when he arrived on the South Side to the outskirts of the rotation at the beginning of Year 3, Keuchel just has to pitch better. A whole lot better. He believes he can do that.
“I fully expect myself to be back and producing and helping come playoff time,” he said.
The Sox aren’t about to fight him on it.
“I feel like he’s going to have a good year for us,” La Russa said.
What a game-changer it would be for an already shorthanded squad with high hopes and serious expectations.
“Every career ends at some point,” Hahn said. “Every star eventually doesn’t shine as brightly. But guys who have been stars like Dallas have that reserve and confidence to pull back on, and I think that’s going to serve him really well going forward. We are entering this season viewing him as part of what’s going to help us win.”
And so the bounce-back begins? Here comes Keuchel, out of the corner and back under the spotlight.