By Ryan Ward | @RyanJWard
Last December, at the press conference announcing the official signing of Johnny Cueto, Giants’ President/CEO Larry Baer was quoted as saying that adding Cueto to the rotation would be the single most transformative move the team made all offseason. The type of move that would go the furthest in upholding the "Even Year" rallying cry heading into San Francisco's latest World Series push.
Just three months into his 6-year, $130 million contract, “Johnny Béisbol” is making Mr. Baer’s statement look less like hopeful hype, and more like a statement of fact.
What Cueto has done for the Giants is more than anyone could have expected. Despite his past success with the Cincinnati Reds and as a rental player for the Kansas City Royals championship club last year, he has never quite lived up to the expectations placed on him after his MLB debut in 2008, when he struck out 10 and walked none -- the first player in MLB history to do that in his first career start. The Reds surely thought they had found a perennial All-Star, Cy Young candidate, and top-of-the-rotation ace. But fortunately for the Giants, that's not how Johnny's story unfolded.
Sure, his resume now includes an All-Star appearance, a 20-win season, and runner-up for the 2014 NL Cy Young award, but the Reds had hoped they would get that sort of performance year-in and year-out, and Cueto only flashed such brilliance; he never quite sustained it.
So when he hit free-agency last November on the heels of a rocky three months with the Royals (but one hell of a World Series performance), GM’s around baseball weren’t quite sure what to make of him, and subsequently what kind of offers he would receive. Was he an elite starter in the middle of his prime, a la Zack Greinke? Were his regular season struggles with the Royals last season cause for concern? Was his outstanding World Series performance a sign of things to come?
What the Giants saw -- and what other teams didn’t -- was a dynamic, charismatic starter that would eat up innings and fit perfectly behind their own certified ace, Madison Bumgarner. That isn’t to say that other teams weren’t interested, but it’s clear that the Giants had no reservations about Cueto’s abilities, and made their best offer to him before he could consider signing elsewhere.
And boy, does that look like a stroke of genius. Zack Greinke signed the most lucrative SP deal in baseball history at 6 years, $206 million to join the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers were apparently never interested in Cueto (despite losing out on Greinke), instead going with two lower-cost replacements in Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda. Both of those teams find themselves chasing San Francisco’s huge lead in the NL West, and Cueto has become a beloved fan favorite and consistent performer for the Giants.
Three months into the season, Cueto is among the league leaders in wins (11), innings pitched (115), ERA (2.42), and is a shoe-in to make the NL All-Star team headed to San Diego next month. Yes, he’s been partially overshadowed by Bumgarner’s dominance at times, but that’s exactly what the Giants envisioned, isn’t it? They own the best 1-2 punch in the National League, complete with the bull-headed, old school lefty Bumgarner, and the quick-pitching, fun-loving righty Cueto. If the Giants’ success continues and they reach the postseason, they will feel confident going against any of the other elite rotations in the National League.
We all know what the Giants can do when they reach the postseason; they haven’t lost a playoff series since 2003. The issue for them has been consistently getting there. The thing that kept the Giants from reaching the postseason in 2015 was their lack of quality starting pitching, and the front office made it clear that signing Cueto was key...the key...to 2016 and beyond.
They took a chance on Johnny Cueto and his inconsistent past, and he’s rewarding them in style with his best season to-date. If he and his Giants teammates keep it going, they might find themselves in a position to leverage that even-year magic come October.