Dallas Keuchel joins the Braves.

The National League East was supposed to be a four-team banger, but it hasn’t turned out that way. The two teams that look actually capable of winning the division are closely bunched together, and the signing of Dallas Keuchel might be enough to vault the Atlanta Braves over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Keuchel could have helped during the first two months, too, but saddled with a qualifying offer that would have cost the signing team a draft pick the veteran left-hander was avoided like the plague, a combination of teams preferring profits to winning coupled with Keuchel’s insistence on getting what he deemed was a fair deal. Keuchel talked to Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports in early May, about a month before signing with Atlanta:

“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.”

Fellow free agent Nathan Eovaldi had postseason heroics fresh on his resume last offseason, but had a rather ordinary 2018 regular season that wasn’t any better than Keuchel’s:

Even with two Tommy John surgeries on his medical chart, and missing all of 2016 and 2017, Eovaldi was able to secure a four-year, $68 million contract from the Red Sox. It’s understandable that Keuchel, with a solid postseason resume of his own — 3.31 ERA in 10 games, nine starts — and a Cy Young Award on his mantel, expected to be paid quite handsomely last winter, even at two years older than Eovaldi.

Keuchel, like closer Craig Kimbrel, turned down the qualifying offer last winter, rejecting a one-year, $17.9 million deal in lieu of free agency. Kimbrel signed last week with the Cubs, a three-year deal reached a few days before Keuchel. Keuchel settled for one year at a reported $13 million for the remainder of the season.

Both signed deals once the MLB Draft started, which meant no more draft pick cost for a signing team. Suddenly, the two free agent pitchers magically had a market. The benefit for both is that they won’t be subject to a qualifying offer again, so when they hit free agency again they will be unencumbered. Keuchel can help his market value immensely with a strong three or four months with Atlanta, especially if he helps them back to the postseason.

What Keuchel gives the Braves is an above-average starting pitcher to help out a struggling rotation in a tight division race. Keuchel hasn’t matched his Cy Young level from 2015, but in the three years since he has a 3.77 ERA, a 107 ERA+, and a 3.78 FIP while averaging 28 starts and 173 innings per season. His FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement hasn’t been below 2.3 since 2013, averaging 2.7 WAR over the last three years.

Atlanta’s rotation ranks 11th in the National League in ERA (4.39), 10th in FIP (4.42), 13th in strikeout rate (20.9 percent) and 12th in innings per start (5.30). Kevin Gausman and Mike Foltynewicz have been especially terrible, combining for a 6.04 ERA in 20 starts. Foltynewicz had a 2.87 ERA in 31 starts for the Braves in 2018 and started in Game 1 of the NLDS. Gausman had a 2.85 ERA in 10 starts after getting acquired at the trade deadline. They were integral in Atlanta’s first division title in five years, and the Braves will need strong pitching again in 2019 to make a return trip to October.

Entering Friday the Braves (33-29) trail the Phillies (35-27) by two games in the NL East, the only teams in the division without a losing record. Philadelphia is dealing with their own issues, especially losing outfielder Andrew McCutchen for the season to a torn ACL. This figures to be a two-team race down the stretch, and every little bit each team can add could make a huge difference in the division.

The Braves during their offseason focused most of their attention on offense, signing Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract, bringing back old friend Brian McCann on a one-year deal, and retaining Nick Markakis. Atlanta also signed young stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies to ridiculously team friendly contracts that should benefit the franchise for years. But they didn’t really spend on pitching.

Until now, at least. Keuchel will certainly help the Braves, but if they end up missing out on the division or the playoffs by a game or two one has to wonder if they waited too long.

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