News surfaced on Sunday that the Arizona Diamondbacks offered free agent starter Johnny Cueto a six year contract worth $120 million and that he subsequently declined that offer. My initial reaction was, “Wow that’s nuts.” I meant that for both sides. It seemed like a poor use of funds to allocate so much money to one starter that isn’t an ace and maybe not even a strong number two anymore. It also seemed kind of crazy that Cueto would turn down a perfectly reasonable contract – from the players’ perspective – during a free agent class which is flush with starting pitchers. After some thought I have kind of changed my mind on both accounts, but I think the Diamondbacks are the ones that will be happiest in the end.
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the Diamondbacks. They finished under .500 last year, 13 games back of the division winning Dodgers and 18 games back of the second wild card. The Dodgers aren’t going anywhere and the Giants have that even number devil magic. The Cubs and Pirates are going to continue to be strong as well. That’s not to mention other clubs that look to improve next season like the Mets.
However when you take a closer look at their roster, it starts to make a little more sense that they’d want to add a pitcher to the top of their rotation. Their lineup looks downright competent. They have a bonafide superstar in Paul Goldschmidt. Another year like his 6.6 fWAR 2015 and AJ Pollock will give Goldschmidt some company. While David Peralta isn’t in that class he appears to have become an above average regular. Former Rule 5 pick Ender Inciarte proved to be more than ready for the challenge presented by the jump to the majors. Welington Castillo, Jake Lamb, and even Yasmany Tomas – who was admittedly horrible in his first exposure to baseball stateside – could all prove to be average regulars. Even though they could use an upgrade to shortstop and/or second base. that’s a pretty solid collection of position players.
Their rotation on the other hand looks pretty sad. By fWAR, they were the third worst in baseball in 2015. It’s pretty typical for a rotation to use 8 or 9 starters throughout a season. Injuries happen after all. But when you’re going 12 deep as the D-Backs did, it’s usually an indication that something isn’t working.
The top returning starters are Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, Rubby de la Rosa, and Chase Anderson. Each is a reasonable starter, but only Ray and Corbin figure to be anything better than average. And even then I wouldn’t classify either as anything more than mid-rotation. Considering that it makes sense for Arizona to add someone to the top of that rotation.
I’m not sure it makes sense to allocate $20 million a year to Johnny Cueto though. He’s a good starter, better than average. But he is far from an ace. If you wanted to label him as a number two, I wouldn’t argue with you. But I think he’s on the borderline between a two and a three. Fans of Cueto will point out before 2015 he enjoyed a sub-3.00 ERA. I would point out that for the past 6 years, his FIP was in the mid-3’s.
His 3.41 ERA in 2016 was more in-line with what his FIP has been telling us. That’s still much better than average. But I think a team that pays him something in the range of 6/120 is paying for his name more than his production going forward. There are plenty of starters on the market that can provide the potential for an ERA in 3.30-3.50 range that will come well under that price.
At the same time, I kind of understand why Johnny Cueto would turn that down. He’s essentially betting that someone will pay for his name. It certainly helps that he was traded mid-season. That means he doesn’t come with draft pick compensation attached and the signing team won’t have to give up a draft pick to get him.
Still, it’s a pretty big risk as not all teams can afford an annual average value in the $20M range, let alone over $20M which is what Cueto is looking for. It’s true that you’ll have to give up a draft pick to sign guys like Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Samardzija, and Wei-Yin Chen. But you could feasibly sign two of the three and still come under that $120 million that would have gone to Cueto. And it’s a lot easier to give up that second draft pick after you’ve given up the first.
There are also candidates like Mike Leake and Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda that won’t cost a pick to sign. They’re both closer to mid-rotation caliber than Cueto. But they’ll also cost well under his price tag too. That would leave the flexibility to perhaps spend on a second pitcher, which is something I think the Diamondbacks would benefit more from than simply one pitcher who is slightly better than the others I’ve mentioned.
I think it’s strange the Diamondbacks were willing to allocate as much money to Cueto as they apparently were. I get the impulse to add him, but I think that money could be better used adding two solid pitchers. I can understand why he did it, but I think it’s a huge risk that Cueto turned the deal down. In my opinion, the Diamondbacks come out better for the deal having not been completed. I think it’s more of a risk for Cueto and he could end up in the same boat James Shields was in last year. By the end of this offseason, we’ll learn which if either side regrets the decision the most.