The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
Johnny Cueto is the first free agent starting pitcher I chose to tackle in this series because of his particularly unique season in 2015, and an overall complicated situation. At first glance, the numbers appear quite strong. The ERA is a bit higher than what we’ve come to expect of Cueto, but, even without digging too deeply, we find a starting pitcher who will be just 30 years old when the 2016 season begins, who threw over 200 innings each of the last two seasons, and who just finished a 4.1 WAR year. Sign us up, right? Not so fast. Johnny Cueto had two very different half-seasons in 2015.
In his first 118.2 innings before the All-Star Break, Cueto was dominant. He kept a tidy 2.73/3.12/3.32 ERA/FIP/xFIP with an equally impressive 24.3% strikeout rate and 4.7% walk rate. His BABIP was a bit low at .235, but he has a history of relatively lower BABIP and his LOB% was actually lower than his career mark, suggesting that he wasn’t receiving any additional/unusual help with sequencing. All in all, he had a great first half, and, as one of the younger pitchers set to hit free agency, Cueto looked like he would cruise to a massive contract in the offseason.
But then the second half happened.
In his 93.1 innings from July 19 to October 4, most of which came after a trade to the contending Royals, Cueto fell apart. His slash line shot up to 4.34/4.04/4.38, while his strikeout rate plummeted to just 15.8%. His walk rate (6.0%) was still solid, but without the strikeouts, his effectiveness took a nose dive. Worse, his BABIP rose to .330 – well above his career norm, and that hurt him badly. A BABIP that high would hurt most pitchers, but, when coupled with the inability to strike anyone out, a high BABIP is even more detrimental (fewer strikeouts mean more balls in play, a greater BABIP means more balls in play find holes, and you can see where this goes).
In the playoffs, Cueto paired two dominant outings with bad one and one terrible one.
Performance Before 2015
Most of the readers here are relatively familiar with Johnny Cueto, given that he’s spent nearly all of his time in the NL Central with the Cincinnati Reds. His career started a bit slowly, making his big league debut in 2008, but he improved his performance every season, before breaking out in 2011 and once again (even moreso) in 2012.
In 373 IP across the 2011-2012 seasons, Cueto cemented himself as one of the better pitchers in the National League. He slashed 2.58/3.35/3.75, with a 50.9% ground ball rate and equally good control (6.3% walk rate). While his FIP and xFIP indicate that his performance was a bit better than expected, don’t let that deter you from his effectiveness. Cueto has outperformed his FIP in every single season since he started back in 2008. Some guys consistently perform worse than their peripherals for various reasons (Edwin Jackson) and some guys consistently outperform their peripherals. I know it’s uncomfortable to hang your hat on, but Cueto has been pretty consistent in that respect, and I suspect weak contact has a lot to do with that.
He suffered an injury-filled 2013 (more on that in a second), but, in 2014, he was once again outstanding (2.25/3.30/3.21, 4.6 WAR). Despite some injury concerns and early career mediocrity (he was just 22 in 2008, though), it’s hard to deny that Cueto has been at least a consistently above-average pitcher when healthy.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond
Johnny Cueto is one of the more difficult players to project going forward. On the one hand, he has a history of pitching at a nearly elite level, while, on the other hand, those results are propped up by less than encouraging peripherals. Indeed, you might be tempted to see his first three years as closer to his true talent level (can’t knock him too much), but he has been able to outperform those advanced statistics so consistently that you almost have to admit it’s at least a tiny bit within his control. Although he missed time in 2013, he’s thrown over 200 innings in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and is just 29 years old. For what it’s worth, Steamer’s early projections for 2016 have Cueto throwing 210 innings in 2016 with a 3.51 ERA (3.88 FIP), accumulating just 2.9 WAR, which would be his lowest total in a full season since 2010.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Like his upcoming performance, Cueto’s potential contract has actually become surprisingly difficult to predict. Before the second half of 2015, Cueto felt like a lock to reach seven years and at least $150M, but that seems very much in question now. Moreover, Cueto’s injury history may be brought into question (rightfully or not) as a cause of his poor performance in the second half of 2015, and be used against him. For what it’s worth, neither Tim Dierkes nor Jeff Passan believes that Cueto will receive as many dollars or years as the Cubs gave Jon Lester. Cueto is one of the youngest (and potential impact-iest) starting pitchers available this offseason, but there are just so many options out there. We might not see him land such a massive contract after all.
Johnny Cueto has had a pretty significant history of injuries. In 2011, he began the season on the disabled list and didn’t return until May 8. He was then shut down once again in September of that season, after straining his back in a start against the Cubs. In 2012, he threw 217 innings during the regular season, but left after just eight pitches in game one of the NLDS, because of a strained muscle in his back. In 2013, he only managed to start 11 games (60.2 IP) due to a variety of injuries, though he was successful (2.82/3.81/3.23) in limited duty. He once again pitched over 200 innings in both 2014 and 2015, but did have some time off throughout the 2015 season to rest what was called elbow soreness, which is especially scary. It is not unfair to say that Johnny Cueto comes with some very serious health questions.
[Brett: One other important consideration is the wiggle wiggle.]
Fit For The Cubs
Despite Johnny Cueto’s questionable injury history and unpredictable effectiveness going forward, I can see a situation where a marriage with the Cubs becomes possible. Consider that, with the large number of available starting pitching options on the market, it’s possible Cueto is not among teams’ earliest targets, especially given the obvious injury and performance concerns, together with what is expected to be a significant contract. Separately, we know that the Cubs front office is willing to take a particularly patient approach to free agency. So then, you can imagine a scenario where, late in the offseason, Cueto finds himself hard pressed to find the offer he wants, setting up the Cubs to come in with a late, lower year, but fair average annual value deal that is hard to pass up. (There could be similarities to the James Shields situation last year, though it’s important to note that, unlike Shields, Cueto will not be tied to draft-pick compensation.)
Given that the Cubs plan very seriously to be competitive in 2016 and beyond, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Cubs take a gamble on a relatively young starting pitcher that has immediate upside, even if it comes along with some short-term risk. Given that Cueto won’t be tied to draft pick compensation (he was traded to the Royals midseason), it’s possible that I may be doing a bit of wishful thinking here.
But, if the combination of injuries, uncertainty and alternative options can push his contract somewhere into the four/five-year, $100M/$120M range, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cubs pounce.
To be clear, I do see this as quite the long-shot, and I do not suspect to find Cueto at the top of the Cubs’ wish list when the rumors start to shake out. But if he hangs around on the market a bit, and if other pursuits don’t go as planned, you never know.