Remembering Johnny Cueto
(originally written 1/17/22)
Before I go any further, let me just make clear that Johnny Cueto did not die. We are "remembering" his six seasons as a member of the San Francisco Giants.
As you may recall, the Giants edged the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series. It may not seem like it, but they did use pitchers besides Madison Bumgarner in that series. Royals C Salvador Perez probably still has the knot in his leg to prove it.
One year later, the Royals added a few pieces, including Cueto, and beat the New York Mets in the World Series. Meanwhile, the reigning champion Giants finished a humdrum 84-78—good for second place in the NL West, about 59 games behind the Dodgers.
Almost every starting pitcher who led San Francisco's charge to three World Series in five years 2010-14 was still on the 2015 roster. Which, on its face, would be a positive. Except Tim Hudson was retiring and Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jake Peavy had battled injuries and performance dips throughout 2015 and could not be counted on by a 2016 team with championship aspirations.
If this is it for Johnny Cueto as a Giant, he leaves with a 39-27, 3.81 record in 103 starts...plus 13 pickoffs!
Lincecum and Vogelsong were not re-signed, nor was mid-2015 acquisition Mike Leake, leaving only Bumgarner, young Chris Heston and Peavy with 2016 rotation spots...until GM Bobby Evans went shopping. In early December, he came away with free agent SP Jeff Samardzija for 5Y/$80M, then a few days later Cueto—who had turned down 6Y/$120M from Arizona—signed with SF for 6Y/$130M plus a club option for 2022.
Cueto was a couple months short of 30 and fresh off that World Series, one where he became the first American Leaguer since 1991 to throw a complete game. But he was best known for his seven-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he won 92 games with a 3.21 ERA over 213 starts.
Cueto was also an entertainer, throwing from a variety of arm angles, quick-pitching at times, and often "shimmying" to confuse hitters trying to time his release. He'd endured serious scrutiny in 2010 for this regrettable act, but it was largely forgotten by the time he signed with the Giants.
Early in Spring Training 2016, Cueto's season was threatened before it even started—but Cueto was able to laugh off the liner that caromed off his dome. With Bumgarner as the undisputed #1 starter entering the regular season, Cueto became what I believe is the first planned $20M #2 starter in league history.
And in 2016, he was worth every penny, going 18-5, 2.79 while making all 32 starts and completing five of them! And in the NLDS opener against the Cubs, Cueto then gave a superhuman CG performance, allowing three hits and whiffing 10 (but losing 1-0). The big Dominican wound up with Cy Young votes and an All-Star nod that year.
No one could have guessed at the time, but 2016 would represent Cueto's high point as a Giant. In 2017 he fell to 8-8, 4.52 in 25 starts as he was hindered by blister problems and later, the dreaded flexor tendon strain that frequently leads to surgery.
Cueto got off to an absolutely brilliant start to 2018 (0.84 ERA after five April starts) but then sprained his ankle. Upon returning, his fiery reaction to a clutch 3-6-1 double play in Anaheim lit up ALL of us fans. It seemed the Cueto of '16 was back for the duration.
But then he suffered an elbow sprain. Advised not to undergo surgery, Cueto rehabbed, returned in July with 7-8 MPH off his fastball, got shelled, then underwent "Tommy John" surgery at long last. Giants fans didn't see Cueto on the mound again until a handful of limited starts in September 2019.
By that time, the Giants were less a World Series contender and more a sub-.500 collection of underperformers; other franchises might have tried to move Cueto's contract but not San Francisco. In fact, with Bumgarner departed after the '19 season, Samardzija injured and unprovens galore occupying the rotation, it could be argued the Giants never needed Cueto more than in early 2020. In fact, he started on Opening Day—but was mysterious removed by new skipper Gabe Kapler after four quality innings, much to his shock.
The move left fans fearing another injury, but Cueto wound up missing no turns in the abbreviated 2020 season. Though with a 5.40 ERA and just two wins, some wished he had.
The final year of Cueto's Giants deal ebbed and flowed as he dealt with various health and personal issues after the All-Star break. But the 35-year-old turned back the clock with a brilliant effort against Colorado 4/9, one in which Kapler gave Cueto a shot at going the distance but pulled him after 8.2 innings and 118 pitches after Rockies SS Trevor Story singled through a shifted infield.
Cueto was left off the postseason roster, as those holes in the 2020 Giants rotation had since been patched up by veterans Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani (Cueto's old Reds teammate) and Alex Wood, plus emerging young ace Logan Webb.
Johnny Cueto's at-bats were often fun, too. He only struck out 54 times in 161 at-bats as a Giant—not bad for a pitcher.
He remained a vocal cheerleader, however, and having made his first-ever relief appearance in late 2021, was behind the glass in case of emergency.
Johnny Cueto's legacy with the Giants? Unfortunately, his contributions didn't lead to the World Series title he hinted at during his introductory press conference ("It's an even year" he said of 2016, referencing San Francisco's 2010, 2012 and 2014 trophies.) But, my word, was the man fun to watch even when he wasn't chewing up opposing lineups.
Cueto was not a particularly good hitter, but he had his moments; no Giant seemed to enjoy swinging the bat and chugging up the line more. Within seconds of an inning ending, you could count on his hat coming off; he'd also deliberately discard his helmet on the bases. The man clearly didn't like anything except the do-rag on his head.
The gum, the braids—even if Cueto didn't have identifying information on his jersey, you'd always know who he was.
He was so good for the Giants in 2016 and 2018 until his elbow acted up. And while many pitchers are able to return from "Tommy John" surgery throwing just as hard or harder, most of those pitchers weren't 32 like Cueto was. It was inevitable he'd lose a bit of velocity, and as a result, a bit of effectiveness. (I was blown away when Cueto was clocked at 95 MPH once in 2021...hadn't seen that in a while.)
While it can't be argued that Cueto was not a $20M+ pitcher after 2016—except for April 2018—I don't view his signing as a mistake by any stretch. Any pitcher can get hurt and most pitchers do; it's a risk every team takes when issuing a long-term contract. Cueto was about as low-risk as anybody on the market that winter, an established star coming off a very impressive World Series performance and only 30 years of age.
While I don't believe any players are worth $130M, if I had to spend $130M on somebody in the winter of 2015-16, Cueto's one of the guys on my short list.
Though part of me hopes Cueto—whose pricey 2022 option was declined by the Giants—ends up back on the team somehow once the lockout ends, I'm aware it is not likely, and I'm aware my hopes stem less from Cueto's ability to mow down opposing hitters at this point in his career and more from just being used to having him around. Call it my Mark Gardner syndrome.
But if we have indeed seen the last of Cueto in a Giants uniform, I can say he'll be remembered fondly.
I can say it won't be quite as much fun on game nights at Oracle Park.
But most significantly, I can resoundingly say that Johnny Cueto was, simply put, a good Giant.
He'll be missed.