D’backs offer $120 million; Johnny Cueto says “no thanks”
Hours after the Tigers took Jordan Zimmermann off the market with a five-year, $110 million deal, we learned that the Diamondbacks did their best to snag the offseason’s other second-tier starter, Johnny Cueto. MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert reported Sunday night that general manager Dave Stewart put a six-year, $120 million proposal on the right-hander’s desk, only to find that even that lofty sum wouldn’t be enough to secure his services.
There’s reason to tread cautiously with rumors such as this one, where leaking news of a rejected offer could benefit both parties—setting a price point for the player and allowing the team to claim, “we tried”—but there are enough supporting details to render this particular one believable. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick tweeted Monday morning that the Snakes strained to go from $110 million to $120 million for Cueto, who is apparently seeking $20-$40 million more guaranteed money than that. Barring further payroll padding (which might be plausible following the team's $1.5 billion TV deal), that could curtail Stewart’s pursuit of Cueto, perhaps heightening Arizona’s interest in lower-tier starters like John Lackey, Mike Leake, or the soon-to-be-posted Kenta Maeda.
The Diamondbacks have quietly assembled an underrated position-player group, anchored by Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Manager Chip Hale was blessed with 6+ WARP from three positions (1B, LF, CF) last year, while no other team had more than one such group. Non-first-base infielders were a drag, but the bigger issue was the club’s rotation, which lacks a frontline arm ahead of Patrick Corbin, Robbie Ray, and co. Beyond the TV windfall, the club made efforts to free up salary space—most notably sending highly regarded pitching prospect Touki Toussaint to the Braves to remove Bronson Arroyo’s contract from the books—but it's unclear whether that gives Stewart the funds he needs to obtain an ace through free agency this winter. He'll keep trying, according to Jack Magruder, but if the gap is truly on the order of $40 million, the D'backs appear likely to end up an also-ran in the Cueto derby when all is said and done.
As for Cueto, it remains to be seen whether $140-$160 million is in the cards, but there are a few factors working in his favor. He’s the same age as Zimmermann with no Tommy John surgery on his medical ledger, though there were whispers of elbow trouble ahead of the trade deadline. He was also considerably superior to Zimmermann, as far as our newest advanced pitching numbers are concerned, with a 3.59 DRA besting the ex-Nat’s output by half a run. And, to top it off, Cueto won’t cost his next employer a high draft pick, because he was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer after being traded midyear.
Crasnick pointed out that Jon Lester—one year older than Cueto, no arm surgeries, no qualifying offer—provides a potentially telling comp. The left-hander got $155 million over six years (plus a club option for 2021) from the Cubs last offseason after a 3.8 WARP campaign. Cueto was worth 3.6 WARP in 2015. CBS Sports' Jon Heyman noted Monday that just about every big-budget team in the hunt for a starter has reached out to Dixon, a boon to the chances of the pitcher's asking price being met.
Mets focused on signing Ben Zobrist
Many 2016 hopefuls are prioritizing pitching this offseason, but don’t count the defending National League champions among them. The Mets are swimming in homegrown rotation power arms, so they’re turning their attention elsewhere—namely, to upgrading their lineup. According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the apple of their eye is Ben Zobrist, the ex-Royal whose widespread appeal is expected to price him out of a return to Kansas City.
The 34-year-old Zobrist is renowned for his versatility, which has diminished only a smidge with age. He didn’t appear at shortstop or in center field last year, but he saw 69 games at the keystone, 49 in left and right field, and a handful at the hot corner. Accounting for the supply in this year’s free-agent market, he’s most likely to appeal to teams that need help at second base, but Zobrist’s ability to slide elsewhere to help his manager optimize the lineup would benefit any club.
Sandy Alderson and the Mets are a fine fit, with Daniel Murphy’s anticipated departure vacating the keystone. They also have a nice second-base prospect in Dilson Herrera, a 21-year-old who batted .327/.382/.511 at Triple-A Las Vegas, so while Zobrist might start out on the dirt, he could also help to supplant Yoenis Cespedes in the outfield if the youngster proves himself a capable major-league regular.
Rosenthal notes that the Giants, Braves, and a host of other clubs are vying for Zobrist’s services. He won’t come cheaply, and it seems that contract length might be the determining factor. At 34, Zobrist’s next deal could very well be his last, and a four-year pact could thus be more appealing than a three-year version, even if it comes with slightly lower annual salaries.
On the other hand, the line between Swiss-army knife and tweener becomes finer with each passing year, and Zobrist probably isn’t an ageless wonder. At some point, he won’t hit enough to warrant time in left field or play good enough defense to justify starts at second. Chances are, he’ll be a pricey utility man in the later stages of his next contract. And that means that if it takes a four-year commitment to secure his services, he’s most likely to land with a near-term contender, one that might not mind overpaying when he’s 38 if he helps bring a pennant to town at 35.