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The cost of Johnny Cueto for the Diamondbacks

$120 million wasn't enough for Arizona to get Johnny Cueto. Will they go higher? Should they?

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks' interest in Johnny Cueto has been no secret. Just last week, we wrote about the team giving serious consideration to the pitcher, and it now appears that manifested itself in an offer of a six-year, $120 million contract, which the pitcher declined. Nick Piecoro reports that "Dave Stewart acknowledged having traveled to the Dominican Republic to visit with Cueto after having met with Cueto’s agent, Bryce Dixon, at Chase Field," but It's not clear exactly at what point the offer was made and turned down. Ken Rosenthal says the D-backs met with Dixon last week.

Yesterday, Jordan Zimmermann became the first top-tier starting pitcher off the market, signing a five-year contract with the Detroit Tigers reported to be worth a total of $110 million. Jerry Crasnick reports "Clubs in the Johnny Cueto market believe he's looking for a $140-160M payout," and calls that "Cole Hamels-Jon Lester territory". It will be interesting to see whether Cueto actually gets that kind of payout. Let's compare his performance against that of Zimmermann, over the past five seasons, and see how they stack up - this is especially useful, since the pitchers are both 29, being born three months apart, and both have spent the past five seasons entirely in the NL.

Cueto Zimmermann
2011 156.0 2.31 3.7 2.9 161.1 3.18 2.8 3.4
2012 217.0 2.78 5.9 4.7 195.2 2.94 4.7 3.3
2013 60.2 2.82 1.4 0.8 213.1 3.25 3.7 3.7
2014 243.2 2.25 6.4 4.6 199.2 2.66 4.9 5.3
2015 212.0 3.44 3.9 4.1 201.2 3.66 3.5 3.0
Total 889.1 2.71 21.4 17.1 971.2 3.14 19.5 18.7

This would tend to suggest the two pitchers as not far off equal in value. Cueto has performed better in terms of raw ERA, which is reflected in a higher bWAR value. But he hasn't thrown as many innings, due to him making only 11 starts in 2013, and FIP looks at Cueto with some caution - his career FIP of 3.82 is considerably higher than the same figure for Zimmermann, 3.40. It's certainly hard to argue in favor of an average annual value of $30 million for Cueto, when Zimmermann just settled at an AAV of $22 million. Mind you, despite Crasnick, I wouldn't give that to Jon Lester either, who was worth only 15.6 bWAR from 2011-15, and is two years older.

Spending that amount of money on a single pitcher would limit the top-tier options available for the second arm - although this depends on how fixed the team is on the $100 million payroll figure which has generally been cited. Our previous number-crunching, after the departure of Jeremy Hellickson indicated commitment for 2016 of about $56.5 million. If we went five/$150m for Cueto, the structure might involve $25m this season, then $2.5m more each year. finishing at $35m in the final year. That would still leave $18.5m for another pitcher, perhaps Kenta Maeda? So it wouldn't be impossible to get a second arm.

That said - if we're spending $30 million AAV for a pitcher, I don't think it should be Cueto. I think that may well be the reaction of other teams, and expectations of a $150 million payday seem unlikely. MLBTR's estimated of the contract for Cueto at five years, $115 million (and, should you care, going to the Red Sox). It would be in line with the Zimmermann deal (which they estimated at six/$126m, an AAV of $21m which is close to the actual figure). While I don't blame Cueto for not taking that offer at this relatively early stage, it remains to be seen whether what he eventually gets will be any better, and the D-backs may themselves have moved on as well.