Even as teams pulled back from Johnny Cueto last week, it still seemed unlikely that Cueto would come to regret turning down a six-year, $120 million deal with the D-backs. Cueto hasn't yet turned 30, compiled a 3.30 career ERA while based at a hitter's park and was only one season (and a World Series ring) removed from winning 20 games and leading the National League in strikeouts.
Cueto found his super-sized contract on Monday, agreeing to a deal with the Giants reported to be $130 million over six years with an opt-out clause allowing him to test the market in two years. The market for free-agent starters isn't going to stop just because he signed, either. In terms of volume, inventory is just starting to move.
By my count, 11 teams could still use a front-of-the-rotation arm, including nine that are looking to contend in 2016 (the Dodgers, Marlins, Cardinals, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Yankees and Mariners). At least 10 others still need starters to fill out the rotation or create competition in camp.
With Cueto off the market, here are 10 free agents who could be difference-makers for the teams that sign them:
1. Kenta Maeda
A strike-throwing innings eater in Japan, the undersized Maeda should make a smooth transition to MLB. Because his velocity is more often low-90s than mid-to-high-90s, there's skepticism about whether he can be an ace. But Maeda twice won Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award, so don't be surprised if he is an impact addition for the team that pays the $20 million posting fee to the Hiroshima Carp and negotiates a deal with him. The Dodgers seem like a good fit. Ditto the Cardinals, Angels, Orioles, Yankees and Mariners.
2. Mike Leake
Nobody seems to care too much about Draft-pick compensation these days. But like Maeda and Cueto, Leake should have extra appeal because he's not tied to a qualifying offer. He'll pitch his age-28 season in 2016, and he has thrown 190-plus innings in each of the past three seasons. Leake would be an ideal depth signing and has plenty of upside on a good team. He seems like a great fit for the Pirates, who might be able to afford him after dealing Neil Walker and Charlie Morton. Leake could help the Nationals, Padres and many of other teams.
3. Wei-Yin Chen
Is he going to wind up right where he started, back in Baltimore? That's a possibility, but the Taiwanese lefty could benefit from moving to an NL team like the Dodgers, Padres or Marlins. Chen is a fly-ball pitcher, but he doesn't walk many. That's a skill set that could translate well to Safeco Field in Seattle, where Felix Hernandez remains in need of a wingman to replace Hisashi Iwakuma.
4. Scott Kazmir
After two excellent seasons in Oakland, Kazmir had mixed results in 13 starts after being dealt to Houston. He'll pitch at age 32 next season, and he has as much ceiling as anybody on this list. Kazmir is a good risk for a team like the Cardinals, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Yankees or Twins -- if they can agree to a short contract with some club options -- but he would sure appreciate a guaranteed multiyear deal.
5. Yovani Gallardo
The longtime Brewer has made 30-plus starts seven years in a row, including 33 last year in his lone season with the Rangers. That should make Gallardo intriguing for the Cardinals, who have a rotation full of guys with health issues. Ditto the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers. But he's become a five- or six-inning guy, last reaching 200 innings in 2012.
6. Doug Fister
Would the Tigers or Mariners take him back? Fister's curveball was one of the best pitches in the American League when he was dealt to Washington two years ago. He was very effective in 2014, when he was healthy, but he slid all the way out of Matt Williams' rotation last season. Like Leake, Fister could be a good fit as a depth piece for the Pirates. He could be a Kazmir-style buy-low, look-to-spin piece for the A's.
7. Henderson Alvarez
Non-tendered by the Marlins after being their Opening Day starter in 2015, he isn't expected to be ready for the start of this season. But Alvarez was an All-Star in 2014, and at 25, he could have many good years ahead of him. The right shoulder surgery he underwent in July makes him a risk, but he could wind up in a postseason rotation for a team willing to be patient. The Red Sox, White Sox and Cubs have the pitching depth to hide Alvarez early in the season.
8. Cliff Lee
At age 37, the 143-game winner is looking to sign a guaranteed contract after not pitching in 2015. He went on the DL in Spring Training with a left sore elbow, which was ultimately diagnosed as a torn flexor tendon. Lee opted to treat it with rest and rehab, not surgery, and he is throwing again. In 2013, his last full season, he racked up a 7.3 WAR and compiled a 2.87 ERA and a 9.0 strikeout-per-nine innings ratio over 222 2/3 innings.
9. Mark Buehrle
No, he's not retiring. He hasn't said so, anyway. While Buehrle battled pain in his shoulder down the stretch and got squeezed off the Blue Jays' postseason roster by Marcus Stroman, he was better than you would think last season (15-8, 3.81 ERA, AL-high four complete games). Buehrle, who would pitch at 37 next season, has made 30-plus starts and worked 198-plus innings 15 years in a row. He's a great guy on a roster, too. A resident of suburban St. Louis, Buehrle seems like a good fit for the Cardinals, but he could help a lot of clubs. A team like the Reds or Braves could sign him to mentor young pitchers and then look to spin him to a contender at midseason.
10. Ian Kennedy
He'll pitch at 31 next season, and he has made 30-plus starts six years in a row. Kennedy's 9.3 strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio for the Padres last season was the best of his career, but it came with a 4.28 ERA, as he allowed 31 home runs -- 15 more than the year before. His value is hurt by being tied to a qualifying offer, but he could be a solid depth piece for a team like the Nationals or Astros.