San Francisco Giants: Johnny Cueto Should Return to Form in 2016


After struggling in the second half of 2015, Johnny Cueto‘s return to dominance should excite the San Francisco Giants, and their fans.

For the first time in years, the San Francisco Giants made a big splash in free agency. During their fishing expedition on the open market, the Giants’ front office was able to reel in a shark, Jeff Samardzija, and a beluga sturgeon, Johnny Cueto. Cueto, largely considered the third-biggest pitcher available behind Zack Greinke and David Price, comes with his own set of concerns, but after scuffling through his first taste of American League action, a return to the National League brand of baseball should breed optimism that he will revert to his former, dominant self.

After a July 31st trade took Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds, the only team he had known, to the Kansas City Royals, the dreadlocked right-hander struggled mightily against lineups that featured a designated hitter. In 13 starts with the Royals, Cueto went 4-7, and posted a 4.76 ERA and 1.451 WHIP. It was the worst 13-game stretch for Cueto since 2009, his second year as a major leaguer. That level of deficiency was alien for Cueto, who annually found himself among the National League’s premier pitchers.

Before the trade took Cueto to unfamiliar territory, he was working on a mighty fine season for the Reds. In his 19 starts with Cincinnati, Cueto was working on the best WHIP (0.934) and strikeout-to-walk rate (4.14) of his career, as well as his second-best ERA (2.62), hits allowed per nine innings (6.4), and strikeouts per nine innings (8.3). The familiarity of returning to the Senior Circuit should help Cueto return to his pre-trade form.

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In the American League, Cueto faced eight different teams in his 13 starts. He faced two of those teams, the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox, for the first time in his career. Cueto had one prior start against three of those teams, the Los Angeles Angels, the Detroit Tigers (whom he faced four times in those 13 starts), and the Seattle Mariners. The other three teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Chicago White Sox, and the Minnesota Twins, he had faced twice each. Cueto has  much larger personal scouting reports for every NL team. He has faced all but one NL team at least seven times. The “but one” team is not concern to Cueto, as it is his new team, the Giants, whom he has faced six times.

Cueto should also get a big boost by pitching around alf of his games in baseball’s best pitcher-friendly field, AT&T Park. In 2015, Giants’ pitchers were miles better at their home park, posting a combined 3.19 ERA, 1.153 WHIP, and allowing 0.68 home runs per nine innings. Away from AT&T, Giants’ hurlers owned a 4.31 ERA, 1.309 WHIP, and allowed 1.29 HR/9. Moving to the park that was ranked as the best pitcher’s park in baseball in 2015 (according to Park Factors) should certainly give Cueto an added edge.

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Even outside of the poor performance, there are some concerns that come with signing Cueto. After his May 19th start with the Reds, the team skipped his next two turns in the rotation because of soreness in his pitching elbow. An MRI revealed no structural damage in the joint, and he returned after 13 days of rest. The Giants ran their own set of tests before the Cueto deal became official, as is customary, and at the introductory press conference, general manager Bobby Evans alleviated concerns, saying that his “elbow look[ed] great” in a new MRI.

The Giants have a lot riding on Cueto, and they will expect him to form a deadly one-two punch with resident ace Madison Bumgarner. For $130 million, the team is taking a big risk by adding a player with past elbow troubles (although the opt-out after two years could help them).

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A return to form for Cueto wouldn’t be a “career renaissance”. If Tim Lincecum were to regain something close to his 2008/2009 form, that would qualify as a renaissance. Cueto reverting back to his Cincinnati days would be a very talented pitcher proving that a poor two months was a fluke. The Giants should be very optimistic that Cueto will thrive in the orange and black.