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PHOENIX – One thing is true about Dallas Keuchel: He knows.
He knows he didn’t pitch well last year. He knows he didn’t deserve to be in the White Sox’ playoff rotation. He knows the 2021 version of himself is not the guy the South Siders paid big bucks to add to their pitching staff.
He knows. He doesn’t need a reminder.
But a significant percentage of White Sox fans can’t forget what they saw last year, Keuchel’s first season with the team and the 1.99 ERA that went along with it followed up with a career-worst season: a 5.28 ERA, 59 walks, 25 home runs and nothing more than spectator status come the ALDS.
“I don’t really make excuses. If I’m taking the mound, I should produce,” Keuchel said Monday. “When I wasn’t called upon in the playoffs, that really bothered me. I signed over here for a reason, and that’s to make playoff starts and try to get this team to where we want to go.”
All that bad from a year ago has plenty bracing for more of the same in 2022, Keuchel’s mere presence on the roster enough to spark shouts for a starting-pitching shake up. Keuchel and the White Sox, meanwhile, are confident in a bounce back for a veteran who’s been down this road before.
It’ll take games that count – Keuchel’s due in his first game action of the spring Tuesday – to figure out which side is right. The answer might lie somewhere in the middle, as maddening as that is to the absolutists and hot-takers out there, Keuchel neither the frequently lit up fellow he was in 2021 nor the Cy Young candidate he was in 2020.
But as much as the always honest Keuchel is willing to recognize his shortcomings from last season, he’s equally ready to discuss what makes him confident in a return to form in 2022. This is one of baseball’s more accomplished arms, after all, a guy with a Cy Young Award, a World Series ring and a closet full of Gold Gloves. It’s safe to say the ground-ball specialist knows what he’s doing, even if that didn’t produce results last season.
For Keuchel, the biggest key seems to be a return to normalcy. That’s the last thing anyone else is talking about this spring, obviously, after the first work stoppage in a quarter century brought a three-month halt to the sport and shortened spring training. But Keuchel’s dealt with disrupted offseasons for years now, including his delayed-till-June free agency in 2019 and the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. Not feeling himself last year, from a physical standpoint, due to issues with his back and elsewhere, he counts that, too, as an abnormality he can put behind him.
So even with the lockout, Keuchel considers this a more normal ramp up to the start of his season, and he said he couldn’t feel better, something extraordinarily important considering what he went through last year.
“I didn’t really take care of myself in the long haul like I thought I was going to. The body just didn’t hold up, so it was just kind of fighting within myself,” Keuchel said. “Sometimes, when you’re not doing as great as you want to … you kind of think that there’s more in the tank to produce. … It was, ‘Hey, I’m good to go, let’s step on the gas pedal.’ And when I stepped on the gas pedal, it was like I hit the E-brake, and the body just kind of rejected what I was trying to do.
“Once I kind of spit out last season and thought about it that first month of (the offseason), it was like, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I was doing.’ I was trying to push too hard, and it just didn’t respond. … The point where I’m usually at is where I’m at now, and I couldn’t feel better.”
Keuchel didn’t say he was in “the best shape of his life,” but he probably veered close enough to that longtime spring cliche to keep the skeptics wary of what improved health and a normal physical feel will mean for his production in 2022.
But the White Sox can’t just hope for a Keuchel bounce back, they need one. While the top three arms in the rotation return from the group that was the AL’s best during the regular season in 2021, Keuchel is one of two question marks that follow, along with Michael Kopech, who’s making a jump from the bullpen to the starting staff and will have his innings limited, especially in the early going. Keuchel could do his team and its World Series aspirations a gigantic favor by erasing the question mark around his name and contributing in a way that helps make up for the fact that Carlos Rodón is now a Giant.
Obviously, he’ll try, and in another example of recognizing the realities of his situation, he’s willing to do it in whatever role is necessary. Keuchel, of course, was brought in and paid to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. After the way 2021 went, he gets it if he needs to pitch at the back of the starting staff – for performance-related reasons or just to help out his fellow arms.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of how you finish the year before is how you should start (the next year),” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 22 years old or you’re 34. Lance finished top three (in the Cy Young vote), I think he should get the Opening Day start. Gio had a really, really great second half.
“But at the same time, Kopech is going to be a starter, so it’s, ‘Hey, how are we going to blanket him because he’s not going to be able to go very long?’ We’ve got to be smart with how we line up guys, and I told (Ethan) Katz, ‘If you need me to go before Kopech, … or if he’s 4 I’ll be 5 to kind of make sure that we’re going to fill some innings in after his start.’
“It doesn’t really bother me. I feel great, and that’s the main thing is I’m ready to go and my stuff is pretty crisp for what it is right now.”
Indeed, Keuchel has been lumped in with Giolito and Lynn as the three White Sox starters who are on schedule and looking good early in camp, with the lefty set to throw three innings, as is Giolito, in Tuesday’s exhibition contest. Cease and Kopech are discussed as further behind, with Cease unable to face hitters during the lockout and Kopech having faced another bout of COVID in addition to his already existing workload-management plan.
Springtime assessments don’t necessarily equal summertime success, but hey, it’s something.
More informative, probably, is what Keuchel’s done before, the stuff you can find on the other side of his baseball card. He’s fluctuated between great and less-than-great seasons in the past, giving him experience in bouncing back from disappointing results.
Obviously, we’ll see what happens. But Keuchel is almost sure to wind up a key to whatever the White Sox end up doing this year, for better or worse.
Keuchel and the White Sox think it’ll be for better.
“This is what I signed up for,” Keuchel said. “Before I came over (before the 2020 season), Rick Hahn promised, ‘Hey, we’re not done, and this is our window.’ And that was nice to hear, but seeing it backed up is even better.
“It’s just a matter of going out and playing. But it makes you want to come to the park and play and be there for the guys. I definitely agree with all the writers and media, with the hype, and I don’t see why (the White Sox can’t win it all).”
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