This wasn't supposed to be complicated. Through May, David Price, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto were all pitching wonderfully. They were going to be the 1a, 1b, and 1c of the offseason, interchangeable aces separated only by the specific preferences of the teams chasing them. If you preferred a shorter deal, Greinke was your man, but if you preferred a younger arm, Price was the best bet. Cueto sat somewhere in the middle, with a tantalizing mix of guile and stuff that could age well.
Then Cueto felt stiffness in his elbow. The kind of stiffness that could have cost him $100 million. He skipped a start and had an MRI just in case, NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. The MRI came up clean, and everyone exhaled.
Then he was lousy. The Royals gave up a chunk of their farm to get Cueto's ace ray, and someone got the thing wet. He was 4-7 with the Royals, with a 4.76 ERA and declining strikeout rate. His gimcrack delivery quirks became counterproductive and disruptive instead of effective, and he was hit hard, repeatedly. He became the Royals' third starter in the postseason, and that was mostly on reputation and crossed fingers that he would find himself again. Which he did! At times.
Now he wants $150 million or so. Do you want your team to give it to him?
You do not. But you would be curious to see what would happen if they did. And that's the Cueto dilemma. He has as much talent as Price and Greinke, it's just obscured by the unfortunate timing of a second-half slump. And perhaps a wonky arm. Remember that Cueto missed most of 2013 with shoulder problems, pitching just 60⅔ innings, and in the season after that, he threw 243⅔ innings. He led the National League in pitches the season after a serious shoulder problem. I'm no trainer, and I'm not an expert on the art of pitching, but it seems like that kind of jump might cause someone to lose steam in the second half of the following season.
Now he wants $150 million or so. Do you want your team to give it to him? Reminder: When he's healthy, he's excellent. Since 2010, he's been the 10th-best pitcher in baseball, give or take. On that list, he's sandwiched between Greinke and Jered Weaver, which is perfect, just perfect. That's the spectrum of reasonable expectations.
Now we have to decide which team might pay for him.
I ... I don't know if there is an ideal. There aren't any teams left that can gamble on a $150 million pitcher and laugh it off if it doesn't work. The Dodgers are a normal team now, and they value their future payroll flexibility enough to let Greinke go to a division rival. They would apparently prefer to sign someone like Hisashi Iwakuma, a low-risk, medium-reward veteran who requires a three-year deal. If Cueto really did turn down a six-year, $120 million deal from the Diamondbacks, that means he's expecting an even bigger deal. Which would suggest the Dodgers are quite out.
The Cardinals reportedly haven't even called Cueto's camp because there's so much bad NL Central blood between them. They would have made a modicum of sense. The Giants would have too, if they didn't spend $90 million on the mercurial Jeff Samardzija. The Red Sox without Price, the Diamondbacks without Greinke, all would have made some amount of sense.
Without those teams, we're left with mystery teams. Like, the Indians signing Cueto so they can trade Danny Salazar for young hitting. That kind of absurd, unrealistic, nonsensical mystery team. The Rangers going full-Ilitch and blowing the budget on him to pair with Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. They would be known as the Risky 2011 Phillies, and we would fall in love with them unless it failed miserably.
None of those teams are ideal, though. We need a team that's a) young and cheap, b) contending and c) actively looking for another starting pitcher. Preferably a team that's shown they're more comfortable with risky, expensive pitchers than most.
The Twins, then. That's all I got. Cueto signing with the Twins seems like the logical extension of the Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana deals, and they wouldn't have the Joe Mauer deal toward the back end of a Cueto contract, when he's likely to be less productive.
I'm not saying I would do it, but if we're looking for a mystery team, the Twins would be a halfway-decent fit.
The likely team in the Cueto derby is the team that read all of the red flags up there and dismissed them. The team with an idea of how to fix his second-half mechanics. The team that's encouraged by the clean MRI, not discouraged by the fact he had one in the first place. We can only guess at which team that might be.
There would be a lot more of these likely teams if Cueto's price came down. Say, to the level of Jordan Zimmermann, who signed for five years and $110 million. At that level, the Dodgers might check back in. The Giants might figure out a way to squeeze that into the budget, after all. The Yankees are always great for a surprise spending spree.
The only rich team with an opening that seems like even a half-fit, though, would be the Red Sox, who just traded away Wade Miley and are probably still looking for rotation help, lest they rely too much on Joe Kelly. Signing Cueto would allow them to keep their prospects, who should save them the money that Cueto would cost.
Really, this category should be for the least unlikely team, not the likely team. The Red Sox are less of a horrible fit than other teams.
Get busy mystery teamin', or get busy dyin'. I'll double down on the dumb Twins idea, just because you can make a case that every scenario for all 30 teams is dumb. After a slow trickle of interest, the Twins will come back with that original Diamondbacks offer and see if Cueto has any regrets.
Johnny Cueto, Twins - Six years, $120 million
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