Going into the trade deadline, Johnny Cueto was seen as a consensus top ten (if not top five) pitcher in baseball, and he was having another excellent season with the Reds, just in time for his first opportunity in free agency. Since being traded to the Royals, though, Cueto has struggled mightily, and these struggles have carried over into the playoffs, culminating in his start Monday night in which he allowed eight runs in two plus innings of work.
It seems evident that Cueto's recent performance could have a major impact on his value in free agency. While Cueto does have an outstanding track record, teams will be paying him for what they expect him to do in the future, not what he has done in the past, and his recent performance may alter how teams expect him to perform going forward.
Before I dive into Cueto's struggles with the Royals, I thought it would be helpful to remind people why Cueto was seen as one of the best pitchers in baseball just over two months ago. Here are his numbers with the Reds from 2011 until he was traded in July, courtesy of Fangraphs.
Cueto's numbers are good no matter how you look at them, but there is some disagreement over how good he really is due to the gap between his ERA and FIP. This is a topic that has been covered extensively, both at this site and at Fangraphs, and the consensus seems to be that at least part of this ERA-FIP gap is sustainable due to Cueto's ability to consistently generate soft contact. From 2011 to 2014, Cueto had the 6th highest soft contact rate and the 5th lowest hard contact rate, according to Fangraphs.
Cueto also appeared to be improving in recent years, as he posted the highest strikeout rate and second lowest walk rate of his career in 2014, both of which he sustained in the first four months of 2015. Prior to being traded to the Royals, Cueto was clearly well on his way to receiving a massive contract in free agency. He was (and still is) only 29, and his 2015 numbers were as good as ever.
By fWAR, Cueto was on pace for a 5.1 win season, which would have been the best of his career, while RA9-WAR had him on pace for a 6.4 win season, second only to 2014.
To estimate how much Cueto was set to earn in free agency before his struggles with the Royals, we need to get a good estimate of Cueto's value and see how he compares to recent free agent starting pitchers. While I am more inclined to use a FIP-based WAR for evaluating pitchers, I think Cueto's true value lies somewhere between his fWAR and his RA9-WAR due to his consistent ability to outperform his FIP. That means that Cueto was on pace to be worth between 5.1 and 6.4 wins in 2015, after a 2014 season where he totaled 4.6 fWAR and 7.8 RA9-WAR.
Pre-Royals Cueto actually compares quite well to Max Scherzer, last offseason's top free agent pitcher, who received a seven-year, $210 million contract from the Nationals. Like Cueto, Scherzer was set to enter his age thirty season, and he was coming off a 6.1 fWAR season in 2013 and a 5.2 fWAR season in 2014. (His RA9-WAR totals were nearly identical.) If we split the difference between Cueto's fWAR and RA9-WAR totals, we can say he was on pace to be worth 12 wins in his two years leading up to free agency, slightly more than the 11.3 wins Scherzer accumulated in his 2013 and 2014 seasons. Even if I've overestimated Cueto's value here a little bit, it isn't a stretch to say that he was set to receive a contract within the range of Scherzer's deal last offseason, perhaps something along the lines of seven year and $175 million, if not more. (Scherzer's deal was significantly backloaded, making the net present value of his deal around $191 million.)
So where does Cueto stand right now? Here's a look at what he's done since being traded to the Royals.
Cueto has not lived up to expectations with the Royals, both in the regular season and the postseason. In particular, his strikeouts are down significantly, and he is not inducing as much weak contact as he usually does. While his .343 BABIP with the Royals is probably unsustainable, it is backed up, in part, by an increase in his line drive rate and a decrease in his fly ball rate.
According to Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star, one potential explanation for Cueto's struggles was that he wasn't used to pitching to Royals catcher Salvador Perez, who set the target higher in the strikezone than he normally liked. While it is possible that this has been one of the factors contributing to Cueto's struggles, it doesn't appear as though Perez's subsequent adjustments have done much to improve Cueto's results. I don't want to dismiss this hypothesis completely, though, especially since there do not appear to be any changes with Cueto's velocity, movement, or release point that would suggest fatigue or injury.
So how will these struggles affect Cueto in free agency this winter? On one hand, it would seem foolish to value a player with Cueto's track record significantly less based on less than a half season's worth of data. On the other hand, we cannot forget that Cueto's struggles are his most recent results, and they will be fresh in people's minds, especially as teams project what kind of player they think he will be going forward. Also, if there happens to be any truth to the Salvador Perez catching target theory (personally, I'm skeptical), it wouldn't be surprising to see teams value Cueto less than they otherwise would, especially since he hasn't proven that he is capable of pitching successfully with a non-Reds catcher behind the plate.
Even so, Cueto is still a 29-year old pitcher coming off a four win season, one year removed from an even better season where he finished as the runner up for the NL Cy Young Award. If he is healthy, which may be an open question due to his midseason elbow scare, he will still receive a contract well north of $100 million dollars. With that being said, he will likely have to set his sights much lower than before, perhaps aiming for a contract in the range of Jon Lester's six year, $155 million dollar deal with the Cubs. It is even possible that teams could give Cueto a higher average annual value in exchange for less years if they are concerned about how he will age.
In any case, Cueto is running out of time to ease the concerns surrounding him heading into free agency, and he has likely already lost several million dollars as a result of his struggles with the Royals.