Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cueto Quite the Bargain

Cueto could fetch an even bigger payday two years from now (NBC Sports)
After missing the playoffs for the fourth odd-year in a row, the San Francisco Giants are gearing up for what hopes to be their fourth straight even-year championship.

Since losing out on Zack Greinke, the Giants have already spent more than what it would have taken to acquire him, but for two pitchers rather than one. Normally I'd say that's a smart move--you're not putting all your eggs in one basket--but not when one of those guys is Jeff Samardzija. I still can't wrap my head around why anyone would want to give $90 million to a 31 year-old who just posted an ERA dangerously close to five, but that's another topic for another post.

Because while I think the Samardzija deal was a mistake as soon as the ink dried, I actually like the Johnny Cueto contract a lot. Forget about his up-and-down second half with Kansas City last year and look at the larger sample size--all in the National League, where he'll be returning next year. Over the past five years only Clayton Kershaw has started at least 100 games and compiled a lower ERA than Cueto, which speaks to just how sneaky-dominant he's been. He hasn't been the most durable pitcher ever, exceeding 200 innings in just three of his eight years, but he's not Clay Buchholz, either. There's only been two years where he's failed to start 30 games, meaning you can pretty much count on him to take the ball every fifth day.

So given his age (30), health, and recent dominance, I'm shocked Cueto settled for six years and $130 million. Granted, he's a virtual lock to opt out after two years and seek another similarly-sized contract, but with the crazy money pitchers have gotten this winter I'm surprised he didn't fetch at least $150 million. I mean, Jon Lester got six years/$155 million last year, and he was a year older with another full season of innings on his arm. David Price is six months older, yet Cueto received one fewer year and only 60 percent the money. Greinke is two years older, but got the same number of years and $76 million more.

What gives? Cueto's never won a Cy Young, like Greinke and Price have, and he's not a lefty, like Lester and Price are. They're also all better strikeout guys than Cueto--whose whiff rate has been roughly league average throughout his career--and strikeouts have proven to be the pitching equivalent of home runs when it's time to get paid (which is why Chris Davis just turned down Baltimore's $150 million offer).

But while punchouts are sexy, they aren't the only way to get outs, and Cueto has done a better job at doing that than everyone besides Kershaw. Five years is a big enough sample size--almost 900 innings--to prove that Cueto's success is not a fluke. He's an elite pitcher, even if his peripherals don't exactly back that up.

Cueto probably could have gotten more had he pushed harder or waited longer to sign, but like Jason Heyward chose to leave a good chunk of guaranteed money on the table for the chance to hit the market again in a few years. He'll be the same age Greinke is now, and that didn't stop Greinke from getting the richest contract in baseball history on an annual basis. With a couple big seasons in San Francisco and perhaps another championship under his belt, Cueto will be an even more attractive free agent at 32 than he was at 30.

 And if he's not, well, four more years at $84 million is nothing to cry about.

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