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Somewhere Dallas Keuchel is looking at Nathan Eovaldi’s four-year contract for $67.5 million and is wondering how he remains unsigned. He might be having similar thoughts about Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million contract, but at least Corbin will be 29 to start the season and is coming off a Cy Young-caliber season. By contrast, Keuchel has four times as many innings as Eovaldi in the last three seasons and a WAR nearly four times as high. It makes you ask, what does a guy have to do for someone to give him a hundred million dollars?

In fantasy, Keuchel and Eovaldi represent the end of pitchers who are even partially known commodities. After Keuchel, nearly every arm represents significant uncertainty. However, is that perception that they represent the last stop before desperation-ville pushing their values too high? After all, neither Keuchel nor Eovaldi produced significant season-long value. Furthermore, each one has underlying issues that could make him a wasted pick at a point when fantasy owners are hoping for high profit margins.

Let's compare these two starters with similar ADP to decide which one is worth the risk - the perpetually-injured Eovaldi who has landed in an ideal team context, or the as-of-yet unsigned former Cy Young winner.

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Nathan Eovaldi (SP, BOS) – ADP: 169

The story of Nathan Eovaldi is one of injury, redemption, world series heroics, and triumph. If our experience with post-season heroes has taught us anything, it’s that small samples and emotional circumstances do not usually make for smart, objective judgments.

Despite that caution against the allure of a world champion who throws a 97-MPH fastball and a 93-MPH cutter, Eovaldi is currently slotted between Yusei Kikuchi and Byron Buxton in the ADP charts. Both of those players have their potential, but neither one put up a top-75 performance in the second half the way that Eovaldi did after the All-Star break last season.

Eovaldi’s entire 2018 season was productive if limited. However, from July 25th, when he joined the Red Sox, until the end of the season, Eovaldi was downright excellent. In 54 IP, he pushed around batters with a 10.4% swinging-strike rate and an uncanny ability to throw strikes that led him to 20.8% strikeout rate and a 15.6 K-BB%, good enough to put him in the top 30 among qualified starters.

Likewise, when hitters did make contact, they didn’t strike the ball well. Eovaldi’s .286 xwOBA was 31st best in the league, ahead of Nick Pivetta, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda, Jose Berrios, and his article-mate here, Dallas Keuchel. The dynamic ability of Pivetta, Wood, and Berrios should give some context to Eovaldi’s talent level.

Unfortunately, the arguments against Eovaldi are simple. He’ll be 30 to start the season. He has an injury history and has already had Tommy John surgery twice. Eovaldi has not pitched a “full season” since 2015 when he threw 154 innings in 27 games. He has only made more than 30 starts one time in his career, when he did it in 2014 at the age of 25. Finally, Eovaldi’s modest 5.1 innings per start also mean that he is unlikely to rack up a high number of quality starts for owners who play in QS leagues, and it may hurt his ability to earn wins, though the Red Sox lineup likely makes up for that.

Despite those concerns, Eovaldi also offers some of the highest upsides for any pitcher available so late. His strikeout rate may be slightly below average for a top-30 pitcher, but it’s strong enough not to be a liability.

The hang-up for drafting Eovaldi is that he currently sits in a group of pitchers with high upside and real uncertainty: Eduardo Rodriguez (158), Tyler Glasnow (166), Andrew Heaney (167), Rich Hill (174), and Dallas Keuchel (179). Relative to many of the position players like Buxton and equally frustrating Eric Hosmer, that group of pitchers is attractive. Eovaldi offers draft-day value at 169, but not if owners reach for him. What Eovaldi does offer is the opportunity to bolster a pitching staff when owners have played it safe to that point in the draft.

Verdict: Champ, but you better not reach (based on ADP of 169)

 

Dallas Keuchel (SP, FA) – ADP: 179

If Eovaldi’s attraction is his upside, Keuchel’s is his reliability and floor. For the last several years, the Astros and fantasy owners have been able to count on Keuchel consistently taking the mound, providing quality innings and a strong opportunity to secure a win.

Over the last three seasons, however, Keuchel’s fantasy value has been erratic. The up and down of Dallas Keuchel’s last three seasons is more a reflection of how much a player's ERA can fluctuate despite a pitcher being a solid and consistent performer. There were some problems with minor injury issues and tweaks to recapture his control. However, through the up and down of 4.55 ERA in 2016 to 2.90 in 2018 to the balance of last year’s 3.74, Keuchel has kept his FIP (3.82) and xFIP (3.59) remarkably consistent. During those three seasons, his cumulative ERA was 3.72, just off his career 3.66.

Keuchel’s value has largely come from his ability to generate wins and quality starts with a slightly above average ERA. Those elements are critical because last year is what owners can reasonably expect of Keuchel this season. 2015 is a long way off, and owners hoping for a return to those 216 strikeouts are deluding themselves about Keuchel’s actual skill set. In some capacity, if Keuchel doesn't generate wins, he becomes the pitching version of the empty .300 batting average. Yes, it's good and productive, but if all owners get is a 3.50 ERA, then there is little value. To that end, it's possible that Keuchel might be a perfect example of a player who is better in real life than fantasy. There is some chance that Keuchel returns to a strikeout rate of 20%, but his 9.4% swinging strikeout rate and age make that unlikely.

As a result, if he is going to generate positive value for owners, Keuchel will need to produce wins and quality starts akin to what he’s done the last three seasons. For wins, Keuchel needs to be on a team that provides run and bullpen support similar to what the Astros have offered. That’s a high standard, but if Keuchel signs with the Cardinals or the Phillies, there’s a chance his value could improve based on the offenses for both teams and the softer lineups of the National League.

Unlike Eovaldi, Keuchel’s draft day value might be focused for owners who have drafted Robbie Ray, Eduardo Rodriguez, Mike Foltynewicz, and Stephen Strasburg: high-upside pitchers who can generate strikeouts but have reliability concerns for one reason or another. Perhaps a Keuchel-Eovaldi tandem is the best route for owners trying to find pitching value in the second half of their drafts.

After pick 179, the pitchers available become progressively volatile assets. To that end, Keuchel should be able to provide a useful SP5 when many of the other pitchers are just as likely to be cut as they are to return positive value. However, that’s only true if he signs somewhere that helps his predicted win and quality start total. If he signs with an organization that is still building its core, it will be an uphill battle for him to reproduce even his 2018 season.

Verdict: Champ (based on ADP of 179, assuming he finds a home with a contender)

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