Will Dallas Keuchel make the Braves NL East favorites?

So the Atlanta Braves have some spare change after all. The bean counters at Liberty Media — the team’s owners who have run the franchise more like a real estate company than a baseball team in recent seasons — agreed to find $13 million to convince free agent Dallas Keuchel to pitch the rest of the season in Atlanta.

The Braves entered the season with high hopes in their young rotation, but even though Mike Soroka has been brilliant (6-1, 1.41 ERA) and Max Fried has been brilliant at times (7-3, 3.68 ERA) and veteran Julio Teheran has a 3.28 ERA, the rotation ranks 17th in the majors in ERA. Over its past eight games, the rotation has posted an MLB-worst 6.30 ERA, perhaps ramping up the urgency to sign Keuchel as Mike Foltynewicz in particular continues to struggle.

Keuchel should bolster this group and certainly will add depth once he gets ready (he’ll take a physical on Friday and will start in Triple-A this weekend). The Braves could have turned to their deep arsenal of young starters, but this likely ensures that Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint will remain in the bullpen for now and it could eventually move Foltynewicz to the pen as well to work out his gopher ball issues.

Keuchel also could provide some needed length to games. The Braves have struggled to go deep into games, averaging just 5⅓ innings per start. Keuchel averaged over six innings per start with the Astros last year and went seven innings or more in 11 of his 34 starts.

The surprising aspect here is the Braves outbid the New York Yankees, who were also rumored to be going after Keuchel, given the belief the team’s payroll was already up against Liberty Media’s strict budget requirements. Perhaps a couple of additional factors played into the deal. The Braves trail the Phillies in the National League East by just two games — so adding an additional couple of wins that Keuchel might provide could be crucial to winning the division — and the Phillies suddenly have a bunch of their own issues. With Andrew McCutchen out for the season with a torn ACL and Odubel Herrera on suspension, the team is scrambling to fill center field (rookie Adam Haseley has the job for now, although he has played a handful of games above Double-A). The Phillies could have been a potential landing spot for Keuchel as well.

As for how Keuchel will perform, I think he’ll be a great addition. He had the highest ground ball rate among qualified starters last season, which makes up for the fact that he’s not a big strikeout guy, and is the kind of guy every rotation needs in this homer-happy season. After turning down Houston’s $17.9 million qualifying offer and not getting the megadeal he expected in the offseason, he’ll be pitching again for a contract, so he might come with a chip on shoulder. With his experience in the postseason, he’s also a pitcher every manager wants on the mound in a big game.

Nobody is going to run away with the NL East, but I think this makes the Braves the favorite now. In the past couple of days, there has been maybe a five-game swing between McCutchen going down and Keuchel heading to Atlanta.

Your move, Phillies.

Bell’s triple-double: The other day I picked my annual Way Too Early All-Star Roster and my starting first baseman in the National League was Anthony Rizzo. I could have picked Josh Bell. I could have picked Freddie Freeman.

New York Mets fans will insist I should have picked Pete Alonso. Anyway, I heard from some Pittsburgh Pirates fans who were irked that Bell deserved only backup honors. They’re not wrong. Bell is having the best season:

Bell: .338/.398/.692, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 2.7 WAR/2.2 fWAR
Rizzo: .278/.387/.556, 16 HR, 44 RBI, 1.8 WAR/2.0 fWAR
Freeman: .307/.393/.580, 16 HR, 38 RBI, 2.2 WAR/2.0 fWAR
Alonso: .265/.344/.605, 20 HR, 45 RBI, 2.3 WAR/2.1 fWAR

Bell has the edge in Baseball-Reference WAR, but the four are essentially even at FanGraphs, although Bell also leads there (WAR totals through Wednesday). My argument is that it’s the All-Star Game — emphasis on star — and Bell’s two terrific months don’t trump the long history of success for Rizzo and Freeman. Other fans put the emphasis on “2019” and all that matters are current-year stats. That’s fine — different opinions are OK.

Anyway, Bell is one of the best stories of the season, and after ripping three doubles in Pittsburgh’s 6-1 win over Atlanta, he leads the majors with 45 extra-base hits — 10 more than Cody Bellinger:

His “on pace” stats are amazing: 48 home runs, 66 doubles, 149 RBIs, 120 runs. He’s putting up those RBI numbers in a lineup that is averaging just 4.31 runs per game, 21st in the majors. We also can dream that he’ll give chase to Earl Webb’s long-standing record of 67 doubles.

Even if Bell slows down a bit, he has a chance to have one of the best offensive seasons in Pirates history. Remarkably, the Pirates have had just two 40-home run hitters in their history: Ralph Kiner, who did it five years in a row from 1947 to 1951, and Willie Stargell, who did it in 1971 and 1973. Some of credit goes to the parks the Pirates have played in. Forbes Field was 365 feet to left field and 406 to left-center — although the dimensions were shortened from 1947 to 1953 to 335 and 376 when the bullpens were moved to the outfield (thus helping Kiner, a right-handed batter). Three Rivers Stadium was one of those cookie-cutter stadiums that played fair, and PNC Park has always been more of a pitcher’s park.

If we dig into the advanced metrics, Bell’s 173 wRC+ (through Wednesday) ranks 12th on the Pirates’ all-time list. Four of those belong to Honus Wagner from the dead-ball era. The best since World War II:

Barry Bonds, 1992: 198
Stargell, 1971: 186
Stargell, 1973: 181
Kiner, 1949: 179
Kiner, 1951: 179
Brian Giles, 2002: 174
Bell, 2019: 173

Bonds hit .311/.456/.624 with 34 home runs in winning MVP honors in 1992. He trumps Bell in OBP, but he also played in a league in which the average run environment was 3.88 runs, compared to the 2019 NL average of 4.71. So Bell isn’t going to beat Bonds, but maybe he does deserve to start the All-Star Game.

Cruel tweet of the day: Christian Yelich belted his major league-leading 23rd home run in the Brewers’ 5-1 win over the Marlins, which gave us this:

Yelich’s home/road splits remain Coors Field-like:

Home: .424/.528/1.082, 18 home runs in 25 games
Road: .259/.370/.474, 5 home runs in 31 games

As a team, the Brewers’ splits aren’t as extreme, with an .800 OPS at home and .755 on the road (so Yelich is basically responsible for the difference all by himself).

We’ve seen this before: Max Kepler had the second three-homer game of his career — and it’s the second time he has done it in Cleveland. All three came off Trevor Bauer in the Twins’ 5-4 victory. Here’s No. 3:

The Indians did take two of three in the series, but Bauer’s issues continue, just another dagger in the Cleveland rotation that is without Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco after Carrasco was sent to the injured list a couple of days ago with a blood disorder that will keep him sidelined indefinitely. Bauer has allowed fewer than four runs just once in his past eight starts. He hasn’t pitched as poorly as the ERA suggests, but he hasn’t gotten the outs when most needed, as his strand rate is just 55.5 percent (compared to 79.5 percent last season). Still, for the guy who predicted with confidence that he would win the Cy Young Award, it’s been a disappointing stretch of results.

As for the Twins, they continue to bash, as they lead the majors with 117 home runs — a pace of 311. They’re slugging .510. No team has ever slugged .500 over a full season (the 2003 Red Sox hold the record at .491). Meanwhile, Jose Berrios allowed just two hits in six innings to improve to 8-2 with a 3.14 ERA. He could be headed to his second straight All-Star Game.

With the Twins’ lead a comfortable 10.5 games, the Indians will have to find a way to make a move before the All-Star break minus those horses in the rotation. They do have a favorable stretch of game from June 11 through July 7 when they face the Reds, Tigers, Rangers, Tigers again, Royals, Orioles, Royals again and Reds again. They’ll know by then if they have a chance to catch the Twins. If not, look for them to become sellers — with Bauer perhaps going on the trade market.

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