2015 Statistics: 3.44 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 212 innings
2016 Age: 30
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher
Honestly, the real question here is "How much money did Johnny Cueto's final two months cost him this winter?" The barrel-chested righty had been one of the sturdiest starting pitchers in baseball for the last half-decade when Kansas City acquired him from Cincinnati on July 26. The Royals paid a steep price for Cueto—top pitching prospect Brandon Finnegan and two other young pitchers.
Cueto burst on the scene in 2008 like Kramer flinging open Jerry's door. He made his major league debut at age 22 in the most inauspicious of circumstances—an early April, Thursday afternoon game against the Diamondbacks in a frigid Great American Ballpark. The stands weren't exactly packed. However, the 12,000 or so who showed up certainly got their money's worth. Cueto fired seven one-hit innings in his first career start, striking out 10 without issuing a walk. The lone mistake was a Justin Upton solo homer.
Ultimately, Johnny Beisbol showed his youth in rookie year. He flashed great stuff, punching out 8.2 per nine, but pitched to a 9-14 record and 4.81 ERA in 33 starts. Cueto struggled with control, walking 3.5 batters per nine innings and leading the league with 14 hit by pitches.
In 2010, Cueto started to figure it out. He shaved nearly a full run off his ERA as he lowered it to 3.64. The following year, he sliced it even more dramatically, all the way down to 2.31. He steadily reduced walks, too, tying his career best (set in 2012) of 2.0 BB/9 last season. While he stopped striking people out for a few years, he's managed to resurrect the K. Preferably, he can pitch to the 8.9 K/9 he registered in 2014, but even if he offers the 7.5 K/9 he did last year, he has the talent to make it work.
2014 was really Cueto's career season. He led the NL with 242 strikeouts in an also-league-leading 243.2 IP. Over that monstrous workload, the San Pedro de Macoris native stretched a 2.25 ERA, 65 walks and just 169 hits. He finished runner-up to Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young award and earned his lone All-Star nod.
Of course, most fans know how Cueto fared last year. An apt encapsulation of what's been a somewhat up-and-down career, baseball saw Johnny at both his best and his worst. He pitched great for Cincinnati and through 19 starts, looked to be on track for another Cuetoesque season, one in which he's roughly the fifth best starter in the National League. Regardless, concerns about his health might have caused some clubs to pause before trying to deal for him at the deadline.
The Royals ended up bringing Johnny aboard. While Cueto was mostly decent, he had a perplexing five-start stretch between late August and early September in which he allowed five or more earned runs in all five starts, including eight home runs. Though he righted the ship during the season's last few weeks, the Royals were understandably nervous entering the postseason—so much so that they had Yordano Ventura start Game 1 instead of their imported ace.
Cueto had about as perplexing of a postseason as possible. He turned in a mediocre outing against the Astros in Game 2 of the ALDS, where he allowed four runs in six innings. He followed it by erasing Houston in a do-or-die Game 5, shoving eight innings of two-run ball while striking out eight.
Though Cueto got his team to the ALCS, he couldn't show up himself. He took the ball in Game 3 and before the Royals even knew what had happened, Toronto had knocked him out of the game. The Blue Jays tagged Johnny for six hits and eight runs in just two innings.
When Cueto's turn came in Game 2 of the World Series, many feared he would wither under the scrutiny. Ever the enigma, Cueto twirled a masterpiece: a two-hit, complete game shutout. Establishing the tone for the rest of the series, Cueto blanked the Mets even though he threw just 70 of his 122 pitches for strikes. It was the free cash register mint at the end of his tumultuous campaign.
Cueto has one of the most unique deliveries in the game today. Honestly, with the way he twists his right knee backward when working from the windup, it's surprising that his ACL has held up like it has. He'll bombard the hitter with a variety of arm angles and delivery speeds, as well as a diverse array of pitches. Cueto tosses both a 4-seam as well as a 2-seam fastball, hovering in the low-90s. Over the past few season, he's come to rely more on his high-80s cutter and less on his low-80s slider, a tactic that has coincided with his increased success. He'll also mix in a low-80s changeup, a pitch that was iffy last season, but with which he's had success in the past.
At age 29, Cueto hasn't lost anything off his fastball. He's never been a hard thrower but his confounding delivery and ability to change speeds make him successful. However, teams should be wary about giving him a six- or seven-year deal. He's small and bordering on pudgy. While Cueto might continue to be an above-average pitcher for the foreseeable future, this could be the rare offseason where a team can get away to signing a hurler of his caliber to a five-year pact.
Many teams are going to be in the market for Cueto's services, although it seems doubtful that the Yankees will be among them. Cueto is a wait-and-see guy early in this offseason. Free agent markets are typically dictated by the players at the top, so Cueto will probably wait until David Price and/or Zack Greinke signs before making his move. MLB Trade Rumors predicted a five-year, $115 million contract for Cueto, placing him with the Boston Red Sox.
Cueto is the kind of player that is going to draw varying degrees of interest from nearly every team. Although some will be scared off by health concerns or fluctuations in his performance, Cueto represents the opportunity to add a quality starter at what might amount to a discount. For that reason, even small market teams like Houston and Arizona could get in on the bidding for Cueto. They'll have to compete, of course, with the usual suspects. At the right price, Cueto will be an asset to anyone's roster. At an overpay, though, and the comments sections on some other team's Bizzaro Pinstripe Alley might get a little testy.
It's simply difficult to see the Yankees targeting Cueto this year. If they were able to sign him to an extremely favorable deal, say, four years and $60 million, then they might get involved. Of course, the market hardly fails to break our expectations, and it would not be stunning to see Cueto receiving double that amount. The Yankees have said they are looking for young, controllable pitching and Cueto doesn't fit that description. He's an intriguing option, but ultimately, he's a pass.