MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cueto now king of hill among free-agent pitchers

Right-hander next in line with Greinke, Price, Samardzija off market

Cueto now king of hill among free-agent pitchers

Go ahead, Johnny Cueto. You can crack one more smile, buddy.

Your turbulent year is going to end with both a World Series ring and, it appears, a very rich contract. Nice move turning down that Diamondbacks' deal, if they really did offer you a reported $120 million over six years.

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As the last of the elite free-agent starters still unsigned, you're going to do better than that.

The D-backs' bold move to sign Zack Greinke on Friday night leaves the Dodgers without the free-agent arm are seeking. And they are hardly the only ambitious team that still need a front-of-the-rotation type arm.

There are the Cardinals, who lost the David Price bidding to the Red Sox. And maybe the Yankees and Orioles, who would seem to be under more pressure to add pitching with Price and Craig Kimbrel in Boston.

Beyond those teams, the Pirates, Royals, Rockies, Mariners, Twins and Rangers are also exploring the pitching market, if not quite as vigorously as teams like the Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals.

The Cubs had been in that mix too, but on Friday agreed to a two-year deal with John Lackey, who will join Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester to form one of the strongest trios of starting pitchers -- the strongest, if judged from their 46-28 record, 2.48 ERA and 17.5 WAR last season -- in the Major Leagues. That should motivate the Cardinals and Pirates to answer that move.

Along with Cueto, who appears to be the most likely fall-back option for the Dodgers, the most pursued starting pitchers in the fast-moving market is Mike Leake. Kenta Maeda will have a ton of suitors too when the Hiroshima Carp complete the posting process, although probably not the D-backs. Jeff Samardzija left the market when he agreed to a five-year deal with the Giants on Saturday.

Arizona GM Dave Stewart had talked about his interest in Maeda, but you'd figure the reported six-year, $206.5 million deal (an AAV of $34.41 million, the biggest ever in baseball) with Greinke taps them out. But really, who knows?

The D-backs have been in talks with Leake, an Arizona State product, and still might make offers trying to add him alongside Greinke. The Giants have had serious talks with Leake, and now might attempt to sign him to pair with Samardzija for a rotation that was problematic behind Madison Bumgarner last season.

St. Louis, which is counting on a strong return from Adam Wainwright, is seeking to replace innings lost with Lackey's departure and Lance Lynn's Tommy John surgery. Carlos Martinez pitched like an ace at times in 2015, but he ended the season with a shoulder injury which has added to GM John Mozeliak's concerns.

The Cardinals might want to reach out to local lefty Mark Buehrle, who had a 3.81 ERA over 198 2/3 innings for the Blue Jays last season. He has seemed to fall off the radar, but would be a good bet to help someone.

This much is sure: The appetite for starting pitchers is huge.

There are literally scores of starting pitchers on the market, but none with the resume of Cueto and the starters who have signed already, including Jordan Zimmermann (Tigers). The next tier of available starters behind Samardzija and Leake includes Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy and Hisashi Iwakuma.

The ball's in Cueto's hand. We'll all have to sit back and see if he quick pitches or, more likely, see if his hesitation move works in negotiations.

It will also be interesting to see if young, controllable starters like Sonny Gray, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are made available for trades. Many teams have been pursuing the Braves' Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran, but the asking price for them has, thus far, been too rich for the other party's taste.

One option for teams is to tap into a rich market for position to players to create a surplus that would make it easier to trade a young regular or prospect.

For instance, the Cubs could swallow hard and sign Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon to play the outfield and then deal Jorge Soler to the Braves in a package for Miller or Teheran. But with Lackey in hand, they probably aren't as driven to find an arm as the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals and other teams that have been shut out.

Greinke signing with the D-backs was a twist few saw coming. What's next?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.