D-Backs Targeting Cueto Signals Their Intent for Contention

In what has been one of the more intriguing rumors in an offseason on the brink of acceleration, it was widely reported yesterday that free-agent starter Johnny Cueto rejected a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

According to the Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, Cueto met with the team’s general manager Dave Stewart in the Dominican Republic after speaking with Cueto’s agent Bryce Dixon at Chase Field.

The proposed contract was reportedly rejected, though Stewart was not surprised.

“When you’ve still got the two big guys who haven’t done anything yet, (David) Price and (Zack) Greinke, you kind of want to wait,” Stewart said.

For the Diamondbacks, the deal would have become the largest singular sum given to any player in franchise history, overtaking right fielder Yasmany Tomas‘ six-year, $68.5 million deal last winter. Arizona is not an organization with a frugal reputation, though attempting to woo Cueto must signal that the franchise sees a relatively strong 2015 season as the dying breath of mediocrity.

This out-of-character intention shows the Diamondbacks are ready to compete, and for good reason.

The general baseball public stands at no fault for the sudden realization that Arizona might be getting good at baseball again. The Diamondbacks playing on the West Coast, coupled with four-consecutive years of .500 or worse finishes, leaves most with very little understanding of what has been showcased at Chase Field. This is a ball club with flaws, yes, but the D-Backs are not far from shifting the balance of power away from the state of California.

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt stands out as the most noteworthy. Over the past three seasons, Goldy has posted an OPS no lower than .938, while averaging 29 HRs and 101 RBIs. Both a two-time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner in that span, Goldschmidt is the prototypical cornerstone that any franchise aspires to develop. As important as it is to have “the guy”, the “other guys” are just as much a necessity, and the D-Backs seem to have found a solid auxiliary cast.

Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Center fielder A.J. Pollock broke out to a .315/.367/.458 slash this past season, while fellow outfielders David Peralta (.312/.377/.522) and Ender Inciarte (.303/.338/.408) also found comfort in their first full big-league seasons. Arizona’s middle infield is made up of defensive-oriented youngsters in shortstop Nick Ahmed and second baseman Chris Owings, but in the National League, sometimes less is more.

Third baseman Jake Lamb impressed in his 107 games in 2015, though a nagging left foot strain sidelined him for much of the middle summer months. Cuban phenom Yasmany Tomas limped to a .208/.228/.325 second-half finish, but more reps in the Major Leagues should help to expand his balanced skill-set at the plate.

Arizona accounted for the National League’s second-highest run total a season ago while also being named Wilson’s Defensive Team of 2015. Of the three facets of baseball, the Diamondbacks are not short in offense or defense, but pitching, as always, remains the continued source of concern in the desert.

As it stands, the D-Backs 2016 starting rotation is projected to include Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, Chase Anderson, Robbie Ray and possibly Archie Bradley. The Diamondbacks staff will immediately see a rise in effectiveness with Corbin hopefully back for 30+ starts, while Ray and Bradley are a pair of potential top-of-the-rotation arms. De La Rosa and and Anderson both pitch to less-than wanted contact and are unlikely to be guaranteed spots in the rotation, however, De La Rosa is only 26 and Anderson only has 48 starts to his name, so maybe there is more to be found.

With just under $40 million in guaranteed money for 2016 before arbitration figures are handed out, the Diamondbacks have reason to hit big on a free agent, and perhaps someone such as Cueto is the perfect fit.

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Cueto, even at 29, has the pedigree and how-to on the mound while also being a damn good pitcher. That kind of prized addition not only lowers the scoreboard, but also does things to the atmosphere of the locker room.

Cueto is a pitcher, not a thrower, and has an understanding of the art that can rub off on a starting rotation that, as currently projected, averages only 25 years of age. His presence alone can not only energize the clubhouse, but do small things to make those around him more productive. Simple guidance can go a long way.

And it isn’t isn’t just Cueto either. The D-Backs have also been linked to such pitchers as Shelby Miller, John Lackey and Yovani Gallardo, even with talks of pulling off a blockbuster trade for Reds’ closer Aroldis Chapman.

Dave Stewart obviously has a real desire to improve his club. Though it seems strange to the outside observer, but it makes more sense when you understand just how close Arizona is to contending. The D-Backs can hit, play defense, and perhaps a tweak to assist a maturing starting rotation is the final piece to a puzzle that’s been slow to put together.

Maybe Cueto has no intention of committing to Stewart and a club whose ambitions are far-ranging, but the declaration is enough to show he believes his team is closer to completing the unorthodox rebuild than originally thought.

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