10:46pm: Arizona’s interest in Cueto was and perhaps still is rather intense, according to reports. The organization sent a delegation including GM Dave Stewart, chief baseball officer Tony La Russa, and president Derrick Hall to the Dominican Republic to meet with the righty, ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick reports on Twitter. And the D’backs still have interest after the initial offer was rebuffed, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today (via Twitter), who adds that the club “realize[s]” that Cueto can command more than a $20MM AAV over six years after Jordan Zimmermann got $22MM annually for five.
Of course, the Diamondbacks aren’t alone in pursuing the veteran. Among the other teams to reach out to his representatives are the Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Cubs, per Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. That group of large-market contenders has always figured to factor at the top of the free agent pitching pool.
11:52am: Johnny Cueto reportedly rejected a six-year, $120MM contract offer from the D-Backs recently, and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick now reports that teams in the market for Cueto believe he’s seeking $140-160MM in total — a contract that would vault him into Jon Lester territory (Twitter link). According to Crasnick, the Diamondbacks initially planned to offer Cueto about $110MM but upped their offer to $120MM late in talks (Twitter link). The increase, however, wasn’t enough to get the job done.
It would seem, then, that Cueto’s camp is seeking a contract that doesn’t offer any sort of reduced rate due to the minor elbow issues that plagued Cueto this summer or due to his late-season struggles. Cueto was masterful in his first four outings with the Royals, pitching to a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings, including a complete-game shutout of the Tigers. However, he limped to a 6.49 ERA over his final nine starts (51 1/3 innings). There were a few quality starts mixed in toward the end, but many speculated as to whether Cueto was fully healthy. Cueto and Salvador Perez reportedly worked to adjust where Perez would set the target for Cueto’s pitches, but he still had mixed results from that point forth.
Cueto’s postseason was a true mixed bag — one so-so start, one meltdown and a pair of dominant gems in pivotal games. His final outing — a one-run complete game over the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series — was a nice final impression to make as he headed into free agency. Nevertheless, Cueto’s overall body of work following his mild elbow flare-up and trade to the Royals saw him yield 58 earned runs in 106 1/3 innings (4.91 ERA) with a 75-to-27 K/BB ratio and 118 hits (13 homers) allowed.
None of that is to say that Cueto can’t or shouldn’t secure a hefty payday, of course. Despite those issues, the perception of Cueto has remained that he’s one of the three or four best starters on the market (depending on one’s feelings about Jordan Zimmremann), and we at MLBTR still projected him to clear $100MM with relative ease (though the $120MM he rejected already surpassed our most recent $115MM figure). Prior to those issues, a Lester-esque contract was a perfectly reasonable expectation for Cueto, and the possibility that he exceeded that figure was certainly present. Cueto, after all, logged a 2.48 ERA in 677 1/3 innings from 2011-14 despite pitching his home games in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly parks, and he carried a similarly elite 2.62 ERA and a 120-to-29 K/BB ratio through 130 2/3 innings with the Reds this season.
Cueto is a clear front-line starter when healthy and at his best, and he’s entering the open market heading into his age-30 season, having not yet even celebrated his 30th birthday as of this writing. That he’s already received a $120MM offer suggests that the demand for his services is strong, which certainly plays into his camp’s favor as the Winter Meetings approach.