What's He Really Worth: Johnny Cueto is bad bet at $100 million-plus deal
Not long after Jordan Zimmermann came to terms on a five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers on Sunday afternoon, news broke that Johnny Cueto—the most comparable free-agent pitcher to Zimmermann on this year’s market—turned down a six-year, $120 million deal from the Diamondbacks earlier this month. Speaking to The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro, general manager Dave Stewart confirmed that he had traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet with Cueto after talking to his agent, Bryce Dixon, in Arizona, but did not comment directly on the size of the offer, other than to say that Dixon “probably sees his client above Zimmermmann.” All of which raises the question: What is Cueto really worth?
The comparison to Zimmermann is interesting. Both will pitch at the age of 30 in 2016 (Cueto turns 30 in February, Zimmermann in May). Both enjoyed the best year of their respective careers in 2014 at the age of 28. Both had relatively disappointing but still solid 2015 campaigns, and both come with some level of injury concern. For Zimmermann, that stems entirely from his August 2009 Tommy John surgery. For Cueto, it comes from a history of shoulder issues, as well as his atypical build: Cueto is listed at 5’11” but, per the general rule regarding baseball heights under six feet, is likely a few inches shorter, and he carries extra weight on that small frame.
Cueto has spent time on the disabled list in three of the last six seasons, and every one of those DL stints was due to a shoulder issue: inflammation in 2009 and '11 and a nagging latissimus dorsi strain behind his pitching shoulder that limited him to 11 starts in '13. Based solely on that history and their respective body types (Zimmermann is a relatively slim 6’2”), you could argue that Zimmermann, who has not had a significant injury since returning from his surgery in 2010, is the better investment.
The counter argument is that Cueto’s highs have been higher than Zimmermann’s. Both had career years in 2014, but Cueto’s was markedly better: He led the National League in innings (243 2/3) and strikeouts (242), bested Zimmermann with a 2.25 ERA, 163 ERA+ and 0.96 WHIP, and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Zimmermann’s fifth. Among pitchers with 500 or more innings pitched from 2011 to '14, only Clayton Kershaw had a better ERA+ than Cueto’s 156 (Zimmermann was ninth at 128). Add 2015 to that statistic (keeping the same innings minimum) and Cueto remains in second-place at 145, with Zimmermann dropping to 13th at 123.
Whichever side of that argument you settle on, the point remains that Cueto and Zimmermann are closely matched in terms of future value. That means that Zimmermann’s decision to settle close to his Wisconsin home for less than the market likely would have borne could have a negative impact on Cueto’s ultimate earning potential, something he couldn’t have known when he turned down the Diamondbacks' offer earlier this month.
So what is Cueto really worth? Let’s return to the system we used last week to determine the actual value of David Price and Zack Greinke. Per the methodology established in previous off-seasons by my colleague, Jay Jaffe, we’ll start with the estimated market price of a marginal win (that is, a Win Above Replacement or one point of WAR) and a projected WAR total for the player in question for the coming season. From there, we can factor in the inflation rate in the cost of a marginal win and the player’s expected decline in WAR to project his WAR totals for subsequent seasons, as well as how much those wins will be worth each year. Multiply the projected WAR for each season by the going rate of a single win in that given season and add it all up, and we have an estimate of what he might actually be worth over the course of his next contract.
To plug actual numbers into that formula, we can use the current value of a marginal win—as estimated by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system—which is $6.5 million. Using the 5.4% inflation rate Jay has used in past years for these calculations, we get a marginal value of a win in 2016 of $6.851 million. To estimate Cueto’s WAR total for 2016, we will follow Jay’s system by using a 5/4/3 weighting of his baseball-reference.com WAR totals from the last three seasons (taking the average of five times his 3.9 bWAR from 2015, four times his 6.4 bWAR from '14 and three times his 1.4 bWAR from his injury-shortened '13). That gives us a starting point of 4.1 bWAR for 2016, from which we will deduct 0.8 bWAR annually to simulate his expected decline. Put that all together and you get this projection:
That’s $93.1 million over six years, but the projection has Cueto as little more than a replacement-level pitcher in the sixth year, making a five-year deal worth roughly $92 million the sweet spot for a team targeting Cueto this off-season. With Zimmermann (whose value is nearly identical to what he signed for, according to this system) having already signed for $110 million over five years, Cueto is all but guaranteed to break $100 million. But the above calculations lend no support to his apparent belief that he should land a deal significantly larger than Zimmermann’s.
Unlike Price or Greinke, both of whom have shown patterns of improvement in recent seasons, there’s nothing that would motivate an upward adjustment in Cueto’s 2016 bWAR projection. Indeed, that 4.1 mark is already in excess of his actual 2015 WAR total. What’s more, given the concerns about his shoulder and his build, I see little reason to make any adjustment that would project a more gentle decline. Again, that decline doesn’t begin above until his age-31 season, and, as I’ve already discussed with regard to Price and Greinke, over the last 15 years, even pitchers who appeared far more durable than Cueto as they entered their thirties have had difficulty retaining their value into their mid-thirties.
If Cueto’s suitors are doing similar calculations right now, he may come to regret passing on that $120 million offer from a Diamondbacks team that is poised to take a big step forward next year. Cueto’s subsequent offers are likely to center around the contract Zimmermann just signed, and anything significantly in excess of that would be a bad investment for Cueto’s next team.