Determining the Market Value for Greinke, Price and Cueto

With the World Series over and all the free agents declared it’s now time for my second-favorite part of the MLB season: the offseason. The 2015 free-agent class is pretty deep and includes some elite players. In this article I wanted to figure out a way to determine monetary value for the top three starting pitchers available this year: Zack Greinke, David Price and Johnny Cueto. All of them are aces and certainly heading for a big pay day but I wanted to develop a way of using the recent big contracts pitchers have signed and the production of great players in the past to determine what kind of pay day these guys are heading for.

Since 2009 there have been nine pitchers to sign a major deal: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, C.C. Sabathia, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. (I didn’t include Masahiro Tanaka because he didn’t face big-league hitting until he signed his contract.) The average salary amount for these contracts was $168 million and had an average year length of about 5-6 years. When we’re looking at contracts there are many things to consider but two of the biggest factors has to be dollar and year amount. For all three of these pitchers, this may be their last big contract, so maximizing potential is crucial. Every team would love to add a pitcher of their caliber but not every team is in a position to pay for them. That’s part of the reason I wanted to figure out a way to see what dollar amount these pitchers’ production has warranted so far, in comparison to the big contracts signed since ’09 and speculate what can be expected of them for the length of the contract.

To figure out the dollar amount I looked at the nine players’ contracts and figured out the average yearly salary for each individual. I then took that number and divided it by their career WAR, essentially figuring how much it cost the team for the player’s WAR production. Here are the results I got (in millions).

Clayton Kershaw – $5.2m
Justin Verlander – $7m
Felix Hernandez – $6.5m
Jon Lester – $8.9m
C.C. Sabathia – $6.7m
Cole Hamels – $7m
Matt Cain – $9.4m
Zack Greinke – $7.7m
Max Scherzer – $7.5m

I averaged out the numbers, rounded off and got $7.3 million per WAR created. I then took that 7.3 number and multiplied it by Greinke’s career WAR to get, 27.7. So theoretically a year of Zack Greinke pitching is roughly $27.7 million. For David Price it’s $29.2 million and for Johnny Cueto it’s $21.1 million. It’s hard to predict where the market will go once teams start the bidding war, and I’m sure some team is willing to pay above the WAR value to ensure they get their man but for now I’m going to use these numbers to speculate year amount and production.

To determine the amount of years each player could receive, I decided to compare their career production with that of a similar type of pitcher. Let’s start with Zack Greinke. For Greinke I went with Greg Maddux as a comparison; obviously Greinke throws harder but I felt their command of the strike zone and pitches put Maddux and Greinke in the same boat. Below I’ve compared Greinke’s first 12 years in the big leagues to Maddux’s and I certainly think they’re close.

Zack Greinke      Greg Maddux

ERA = 3.49          ERA = 3.06
IP = 2,092.1         IP = 2,596.7
BABIP = .299       BABIP = .283
WAR = 3.8           WAR = 5.5
K/9 = 7.97            K/9 = 6.27
BB/9 = 2.37          BB/9 = 2.23
FIP = 3.52            FIP = 3.06
HR/9 = .92           HR/9 = .49

At age 32 Maddux had a better WAR than Greinke and threw about 500 more innings, but the latter may work in Greinke’s favor. The next part will help determine how many years a team can reasonably expect Greinke to pitch at an elite level. I looked at Maddux’s career numbers from age 32-38 and these were the results.

Greg Maddux (Age 32-38)

ERA = 3.21
IP = 1,581.6
BABIP = .285
WAR = 5.3
K/9 = 6.18
BB/9 = 1.50
FIP = 3.46
HR/9 = .81

As you can see from the results, Maddux was still pitching at an elite level from ages 32-38. From the ages of 39-41 however, you have a different story.

Greg Maddux (Age 39-41)

ERA = 4.20
IP = 827
BABIP = .291
WAR = 3.5
K/9 = 4.93
BB/9 = 1.39
FIP = 3.88
HR/9 = .91

Still good enough to be a major-league pitcher but a far cry from his prime. For Greinke’s situation I think you can expect a similar outcome, so a contract of 6 years at $166 million would be incredibly reasonable for a team. But this is America and money talks; whichever team is willing to pay the elite price tag for more then six years, I think, will be the winner of his services. A seven-year contract between $27-$29 million would be palatable and completely plausible but I think you start to handcuff yourself as a team going for eight years at that rate. Greinke had a dominant 2015 and if there ever was a time for him to test the open market, it’s now. We’ll see what teams are willing to shell out for him but for now let’s move on to David Price.

Unlike Greinke, David Price has never had a chance to test the open market and after another stellar season in the big leagues, Price is gearing up for a big pay day. As I mentioned before Price has a WAR value of about $29.2 million per season and at the age of 30 could see a lengthier contract then Greinke. To figure out future production I could only go with another tall, hard-throwing left-hander by the name of Randy Johnson. Price has eight years under his belt and his comparison to Randy Johnson looks something like this.

David Price          Randy Johnson

ERA = 3.02          ERA = 3.44
IP = 1,439.8         IP = 1,457.8
BABIP = .275       BABIP = .279
WAR = 4              WAR = 4
K/9 = 8.34            K/9 = 9.78
BB/9 = 2.43          BB/9 = 4.46
FIP = 3.30            FIP = 3.43
HR/9 = .80           HR/9 = .76

Price and Johnson compare very well, with Johnson having the advantage in K/9 but Price’s BB/9 is significantly better. Both have a WAR of 4 and nearly identical IP, BABIP, FIP and HR/9. Over the next eight years Johnson went on to be one of the most dominating pitchers in the game and during that stretch had some of the greatest seasons we’ve seen from a pitcher, period. Here are his numbers from 1996-2003.

Randy Johnson (’96-’03)

ERA = 2.93
IP = 1,660.8
BABIP = .308

WAR = 7
K/9 = 12.04
BB/9 = 2.79
FIP = 2.85
HR/9 = .94

This was by far the prime of Johnson’s career and although Price may not put up those types of numbers, he has a good shot of coming close. An 8-year deal for $233 million would be a steal if Price could come close to Johnson’s numbers. Price’s situation is similar to Greinke’s whereas whichever team is willing to pay elite prices for the most years will probably win out. Like Maddux, if you look at the back end of Johnson’s career, you’ll see the decline in results. Still effective for a major-league pitcher but not worth the elite money they once were.

Randy Johnson (’04-’09)

ERA = 4.00
IP = 1,011.6
BABIP = .290

WAR = 3.8
K/9 = 9.09
BB/9 = 2.21
FIP = 3.70
HR/9 = 1.21

Again, whichever team is willing to pay the elite price tag for these years of Price’s career will probably be the winner. It’s a gamble for sure to exceed eight years but eight elite seasons of David Price might be worth a year or two of mediocre Price. This brings us to our last top-tier starting pitcher and the one who perhaps stands to gain the most by being in the same class as Greinke and Price: Johnny Cueto.

First off, I want to say that I think Cueto is a great pitcher and one who deserves the “ace” title, and I know he’s spent most of his career in a hitter-friendly ballpark, but I don’t think his numbers warrant the price tag that Greinke and Price may receive. That being said, pitching is crucial for success in the big leagues and there are only a few top-tier pitchers available via free agency. A team that loses out on Greinke and Price could very well overpay for Cueto’s services to ensure they get one of the best available. For comparison I decided to use Jake Peavy; although Peavy is still playing I think his time as the ace for San Diego and his funky delivery pair nicely with Cueto. Here are the comparisons for the two pitchers through the first eight seasons of their careers.

Johnny Cueto          Jake Peavy

ERA = 3.31            ERA = 3.34
IP = 1,418.7           IP = 1,360.1
BABIP = .272         BABIP = .286
WAR = 2.9             WAR = 3.7
K/9 = 7.35              K/9 = 9.00
BB/9 = 2.65            BB/9 = 2.94
FIP = 3.87              FIP = 3.46
HR/9 = .94             HR/9 = .90

Through similar innings pitched Cueto and Peavy have comparable ERA, BABIP, WAR, BB/9, FIP and HR/9. The WAR value that I came up with for Cueto was $21.1 million per season, a number I think he can certainly get for a number of years. He’s only 29 and unlike Greinke and Price, may be able to sign two major contracts in his career if he can maintain elite status throughout the first one he is about to sign. If he were to sign a four- or five-year deal (4 years/$84 million or 5 years/$105), it’s not crazy to think that a team will pay the elite price tag for another three or four years of a quality Johnny Cueto.

The red flag I see with Cueto is the amount of innings he’s thrown; at 29 he’s only 21.1 innings away from David Price’s total of 1,439.8. As is the case with Jake Peavy, injuries completely derailed effectiveness and Peavy quickly went from “ace” to a 3rd or 4th starter. I’m not saying Cueto is destined to get hurt — his chances are the same as anyone, but paying the high price required to get him makes the possible injury sting even more. Here are the numbers Jake Peavy has put up over the past 6 seasons.

Jake Peavy (’10-’15)

ERA = 4.06
IP = 893.8
BABIP = .281
WAR = 2.3
K/9 = 7.39
BB/9 = 2.31
FIP = 3.82
HR/9 = 1.04

As I mentioned above, injuries greatly affected Peavy’s last six seasons and that’s not the best situation to compare future production from Cueto but it could be a caution to whichever team signs him as to the other end of the spectrum. We all hope for the best but you have to plan for the worst and shelling out $21m+ per season for those types of numbers doesn’t necessarily make sense.

Again I think Cueto is in a great position here, he’s young enough to sign a big deal and still have the potential to land another one down the road. It just depends on effectiveness and health; if both of those stay on his side, he should have no problem getting another big contract around 34 or 35.

After it’s all said and done, we’ll truly know the answer and that’s part of the fun. Speculating how much, how long and where players will end up helps get through the grueling winter months and I, for one, love it. Let me know what you think below and as always, thanks for reading.

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Brent Henry
Brent Henry

Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson have a couple of notable things in common. For one, they defied typical pitcher aging curves. Both pitching at HOF levels in their late thirties. Another thing is I couldn’t find a list of “greatest pitchers in MLB hostory” where either ranked lower than 7th.

I’m wondering why you chose to compare Cueto’s future value to that of Jake Peavey at the point after which he tore his right latissimus dorsi tendon completely off the bone?


These comparisons leave a lot to be desired.
1) Price, Greinke, Cueto, vs. Maddux, Johnson, and Peavy? You have a big problem, Price and Greinke and Cueto will never come close to 300 wins.
2) PGC will never pitch into their 40’s.
3) None of the PGC three will ever have peaks like Johnson or Maddux.
4) When you compare Randy Johnson to anyone, know that he is one of the two greatest left handed pitchers of all time. (Lefty Grove is the other)

All this aside Price Greinke and Cueto will get their cash purely due to competition and rarity.