Johnny Cueto makes his spring 2015 debut on Thursday with a start against the Indians, kicking off what could be his final year in a Reds uniform. Coming off the best season of his seven-year major league career, the 29-year-old righty is positioned to be the top free agent in the '15-16 market unless he and the Reds can find common ground for a contract extension.
Spring training preview: National League Central
Last year, Cueto earned All-Star honors for the first time in putting together a Cy Young-caliber season, going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and leading the league in starts (34), innings (243 2/3), strikeouts (242) and fewest hits per nine (6.2). Alas, Clayton Kershaw was even better on a per-inning basis in terms of both run prevention (1.77 ERA) and strikeouts (10.8 per nine to Cueto's 8.9), getting enough run support to go 21-3 in his 27 starts; he received all 30 first-place votes en route to his third Cy Young in four years, as Cueto finished a distant second. Nonetheless, it was an impressive season for Cueto, and an important one for his future earnings, given that he had been limited to just 11 starts in 2013 due to a strained latissimus dorsi that sent him to the disabled list three times.
Indeed, durability has been something of an issue for Cueto. While he has made at least 30 starts in five of his seven seasons, he was limited to 24 starts in 2011 due to shoulder inflammation and an earlier incidence of his lat problem, and has only pitched more than 190 innings twice. He also was forced out of his 2012 Division Series start against the Giants after just one batter due to back spasms, and has totaled just 8 2/3 innings in his three postseason starts, an unenviable big-game record. Some of that is simply random bad luck, but taken as a whole, such question marks nonetheless could undercut his value on the free-agent market.
That could work to the Reds' advantage, since they're not likely to afford a Max Scherzer-level contract—though with Joey Votto's salary rising to $20 million next year and $25 million by 2018, the odds of a team with a middle-of-the-pack payroll ($112.4 million last Opening Day, 11th according to USA Today) devoting perhaps one-third of its dollars to two star players would seem to be long. Still, the two sides have been talking this winter. Back in December, agent Bryce Dixon told MLB.com's Mark Sheldon that Cueto "loves Cincinnati and wants to stay with the Reds… He wants to stay if the numbers are right."
Dixon did set an Opening Day deadline for a new deal to be in place, but since then, no real progress has been made. In early February, general manager Walt Jocketty told Sheldon, "With Johnny, we'll never say 'never.' We are going to do everything we can to try and come up with some sort of plan to keep him." But no offer has been made, or at least revealed publicly.
What's Cueto really worth? As I did with Scherzer and James Shields, I can take a stab using my model for free agents, which incorporates past performance, a projection of future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging based on top research in those areas.
While I've gone through this process several times with position players from Robinson Cano and Giancarlo Stanton to Pablo Sandoval and Nelson Cruz, I was reluctant to try with pitchers due to the complexity of projecting performance. However, I found that using a higher starting point for the cost per win than for position players ($7 million, instead of $6 million) and simply simulating an aggressive decline from a current peak yields a reasonable range of numbers. In Shields' case, my initial stab—which at $6 million per win for 2014 ($6.32 for '15, including inflation) pegged his next four years at $75.8 million—turned out to be almost right on the money, essentially accounting for the hometown discount he gave the Padres.
So I'll start there, with the assumption that Cueto could do the same. But whereas I previously used the immediately preceding three or four years to establish a Wins Above Replacement baseline as a starting point for first seasons under a new deal, here I've got to work an extra year into the future. Cueto was worth 6.4 WAR in 2014, and 5.9 WAR in '12, but just 1.4 in the shortened year between. A 5/4/3 weighting of those three seasons yields a simple projection of 4.6 WAR for '15—good, but a significant drop-off from his most recent season.
Instead, I'm going to give Cueto the benefit of the doubt and split the distance between that projection and his 2014 at 5.5 WAR, then run that through the Marcel-like projection (so simple even a monkey could do it). Thus my starting estimate for his '16 value would be (5.5 x 5 + 6.4 x 4 + 1.4 x 3)/12, or 4.8 WAR—not a huge change, but one that adds a few extra million dollars and minimizes the impact of his injury-wracked season.
Using that as a starting point, with a 0.8 WAR per year decline and a "hometown discount" cost per win of $6.67 million ($6 million per year for 2014, grown via two years at 5.4 percent inflation) yields the following scenario over the next six seasons:
That seems downright affordable, and is only a modest step up from the six-year, $105 million extension to which the team signed Homer Bailey last February, though in the latter's case, the first year of that deal was his final year of arbitration eligibility. But it's probably not a deal that Cueto would jump at given Jon Lester's six-year, $155 million contract from this past winter, which at $25.83 million per year ranks as the third-highest annual pitcher salary behind those of Kershaw and Scherzer ($30.7 million and $30 million, respectively, with the latter not adjusted to account for deferrals).
Suppose instead that Cueto strengthens his position with a carbon copy of his 2014, another 6.4 WAR season. Going back to the 5/4/3 Marcel formula, that would raise his baseline projection for '16 to 5.2 WAR, yielding six-year values of 18.9 WAR and $138.6 million. If instead I use the higher cost per win ($7 million in '14 dollars, bumped to $7.78 million via two years of inflation), here's how that looks:
At $161.8 million for six years, Cueto's average annual salary would be a hair under $27 million per year, about $1.2 million more than Lester. That's a reasonable expectation for a top-of-the-line free agent a year from now, but it's almost certainly a stretch for the Reds. Even something closer to the hometown discount price would probably require unloading Bailey, whose 2016-19 salaries run at $18 million, $19 million, $21 million and $23 million.
Unless that happens, the Reds—a team that has historically exceeded $100 million in payroll only in the past two years—figure to have upwards of $70 million annually tied up in three players by '18. I don't see that happening, though as with Shields and the Padres, an opt-out clause somewhere along the way could make the deal more palatable from the standpoint of the pitcher.
Ultimately, this is quite a paradox. A top-of-the-market valuation depends on Cueto bolstering his value with another strong season, as Scherzer did in 2014. But a lesser season would presumably make him more affordable to retain. Without at least All-Star caliber seasons in back-to-back years, the market isn't likely to place Cueto on a tier alongside Lester or former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who can opt out of his Dodgers deal at season's end and would have a case as the market's top option ahead of Cueto. Thus, it will be very interesting to see whether he and the Reds can find a number that works for both before Opening Day.