Marlins To Sign Johnny Cueto

The Marlins are in agreement with free agent right-hander Johnny Cueto, reports Jon Heyman of the New York Post (via Twitter). Cueto, a client of agent Bryce Dixon, will be guaranteed $8.5MM on a one-year deal with a club option for the 2024 season, per Craig Mish of SportsGrid and the Miami Herald (Twitter link). That’ll be paid out in the form of a $6MM salary for the upcoming season, plus a $2.5MM buyout on a $10.5MM option for a second year. If the Fish pick up that option, Cueto would earn $16.5MM over the next two seasons.

Cueto, who’ll pitch next season at age 37, began his career with the Reds in 2008 and was among the best pitchers in baseball for them from 2011 to 2015, when he was dealt to the Royals midseason in exchange for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed. The highlight of Cueto’s tenure in Cincinnati was the 2014 season, when he led the NL in innings pitched (243 2/3) and strikeouts (242) while also posting a sterling 2.25 ERA (163 ERA+) en route to his first All-Star appearance and a second-place finish in Cy Young award voting.

Cueto went on to win a World Series with the Royals in 2015 before departing for free agency, where he eventually landed with the Giants on a six-year, $130MM deal. In the first year of his deal with San Francisco, Cueto was excellent. An ERA of 2.79 (144 ERA+) with a FIP of 2.95 over 219 2/3 innings led him to his second All-Star appearance and a fourth-place finish in Cy Young award voting as the Giants secured a spot in the Wild Card game, defeating the Mets in a one-game playoff before falling to the Cubs in the NLDS.

While the contract appeared to be a resounding success after the first year, things quickly took a turn as Cueto began to struggle to stay on the field. From 2017 until the end of his Giants tenure in 2021, Cueto posted a 4.38 ERA (95 ERA+) and 4.47 FIP in just 394 1/3 innings while spending time on the injured list in each of those seasons except for the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Given his injury history and the fact that his numbers were closer to those of a back-end starter than the dominant ace he once was, Cueto settled for a minor-league deal with the White Sox in 2022 — albeit one with a notable base salary of $4.2MM (quite a bit higher than most minor league deals).

That deal worked out phenomenally for the White Sox, as Cueto posted a resurgent season in 2022 and looked like a bit more like his old self as he posted a 3.35 ERA (118 ERA+) and and 3.79 FIP across 24 starts and 158 1/3 innings. While Cueto no longer struck batters out at an above-average rate as he did in the prime of his career, he maintained his excellent control, posting a 5.1% walk rate that ranked in the 88th percentile of all MLB hurlers, per Statcast. Despite Cueto’s resurgent season, however, there’s reason to think regression could be on the way in 2023. Cueto’s homer-to-flyball rate dropped considerably from a 12% rate in 2021 to a 7.7% rate in 2022. While changes to the pitching environment could factor into this, Cueto’s mark in 2022 was below even his career 10.4% mark — even as he gave up barreled balls at his highest rate since 2019.

Despite these concerns, Cueto should still be a quality arm for the Marlins in 2023. He joins a Miami rotation already overflowing with options: ace Sandy Alcantara is followed by Pablo Lopez, Jesus Luzardo, Trevor Rogers, Edward Cabrera, and Braxton Garrett in addition to Cueto.

That’s also not including young arms who could contribute in the future, such as Sixto Sanchez, Eury Perez, Jake Eder and Max Meyer. Tommy John surgery has sidelined both Eder (Aug. 2021) and Meyer (July 2022) recently, and Sanchez has dealt with recurring shoulder troubles. Still, that trio are all fairly well regarded, while Perez is arguably the top pitching prospect in the sport at this point.

Rumors have swirled throughout the offseason of the Marlins dealing from their deep stable of rotation players, and signing Cueto provides them with additional depth in the rotation in order to more comfortably make those deals. Currently, the Marlins are reported to be listening to offers on four members of the rotation: Lopez, Rogers, Cabrera and Luzardo. With plenty of teams still looking to add to their rotation this offseason, including the Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Padres, signing one of the best remaining starters on the free agent market has surely strengthened Miami’s position in trade talks.

With Cueto now in place, the Marlins’ projected payroll is up to about $106MM, per Roster Resource. That’d represent the team’s highest mark since trotting out a franchise-record $117MM Opening Day payroll back in 2017, though it’s of course still one of the smaller financial outlays of any team in the sport. It also bears mentioning that a trade from that stable of young starters could reduce the total expenditure; Lopez is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.6MM in 2023. Luzardo is projected to earn $2MM. Rogers and Cabrera are not yet arbitration-eligible.

The Padres and Reds are among the clubs that have shown interest in Cueto this winter previously. The starting options on the free agent market this offseason are quickly dwindling, but Michael Wacha and Zack Greinke still offer the ability to solidify a club’s rotation. Otherwise, rotation upgrades likely would need to come from the trade market, where the Marlins seem to hold the majority of the cards.

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