Johnny Cueto turned down a six-year, $120 million contract from the Arizona Diamondbacks, preferring to bet on himself and the free-agent market. He is now the final remaining ace left on the board, and several mid-tier names have already been signed before him. For many reasons, Cueto is just not an extremely attractive option for most teams left searching for starting pitching. With viable trade options like Shelby Miller, Tyson Ross, and Jose Fernandez still on the board, Cueto could be left twisting in the breeze a little while longer, wondering whether or not he should have actually taken Arizona’s offer.
Mid-tier names like Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma, and John Lackey have already signed. Lackey will earn $16 million per year for two years, while Samardzija will earn $18 million per year for five years. Mike Leake‘s name has been brought up with greater frequency in recent days than Cueto’s. Despite tossing a dominant two-hitter in the World Series, there are questions about Cueto’s health and makeup. He was a total disaster in the regular season for the Kansas City Royals following a deadline deal, and could not handle the Rogers Centre crowd in the ALCS. In total, including the postseason, Cueto made 16 starts for the Royals, with a 6-8 win-loss record and a 4.91 ERA in 106.1 innings. Right now, no one is backing up the Brinks truck to pay Cueto.
There were whispers that Cueto’s elbow was not right in Kansas City, but the Royals continuously shot such talk down. In Cueto’s eight-year career, there have already been two seasons, 2011 and 2013, in which injuries limited his starts. The soon-to-be 30-year-old right-hander made only 24 starts in 2011 and made only 11 in 2013. There are also concerns about his makeup. In 2010, Cueto was suspended seven games for “violent and aggressive” actions in a benches-clearing brawl with the St. Louis Cardinals. Cueto kicked Jason LaRue in the head, leaving the catcher with a severe concussion that would ultimately end his career.
Despite the question marks, Cueto will eventually sign a big contract. He is 96-70 with a 3.30 ERA in 226 career starts and has made the All-Star team once. An argument could be made that Cueto was plenty deserving of an All-Star nod last season, as he had a 2.73 ERA in the first half of the season. Overall, there is enough of a track record for Cueto, but it may take a while before someone signs him.
Should Cueto continue to languish, the Seattle Mariners should closely monitor the free-agent pitcher. The Mariners have undergone a bit of a transformation under new GM Jerry Dipoto, placing a big emphasis on pitching, athleticism, and defense. Dipoto has already acquired Nate Karns and Wade Miley this winter to support Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton in next year’s starting rotation. Paxton and Walker, however, are big question marks. Both have the potential to be great, but Walker has been inconsistent and Paxton prone to injury. Karns and Miley are nice options, but will not scare many teams.
With only $104 million set in stone for next year’s roster, the Mariners may have the flexibility to sign Cueto if the cost sinks low enough. The team has already lost Hisashi Iwakuma to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and should look to add an established, legitimate number-two starter behind Hernandez. Cueto would appear to be a great fit in spacious Safeco Field. As Cueto ages, it will be more important for him to have a big park to fall back on, as he is not blessed with overwhelming velocity. At this point in his career, Cueto needs to be able to work his assortment of fastballs and cutters and induce contact. When those pitches are not working right, as with the Royals, he will be hit hard.
The Mariners have continuously tried to throw money at offensive free agents, to no avail. Adrian Beltre floundered, as did Richie Sexson. Robinson Cano may or may not be unhappy in Seattle. Why not give him a fellow native of San Pedro de Macoris to feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest (about as far away from the Dominican Republic as you can get)? There is little chance Seattle will be able to unload Cano, so the front office needs to be prepared for eight more years of the All-Star second baseman. Dipoto seems to have a good plan to mold his roster to the big ballpark, and adding a quality pitcher behind King Felix seems like a more logical step than adding another free-agent bat whose numbers will begin to decline in Safeco. The price will have to fall to a certain level, but if it does, the Seattle Mariners could emerge as a surprise team to land Johnny Cueto.