Giants go all in on Johnny Cueto to form formidable starting rotation
Johnny Cueto has come to terms with the San Francisco Giants on a six-year contract worth a reported $130 million with an opt-out after the second year and a club option for 2022, his age-36 season. With that, the last of this off-season’s four free-agent aces has come off the board. With the Giants landing Cueto, the Diamondbacks landing Zack Greinke, and the Dodgers, who lost Greinke, failing to sign any of the four (Jordan Zimmermann went to Detroit, David Price to Boston), the shift of power in the National League West away from the Dodgers, who won the division in each of the last three seasons, appears to be complete.
Like the Diamondbacks before them, the Giants came into this off-season with a stronger foundation than Los Angeles. The Giants finished 2015 a close fifth in the NL in runs scored, third in the NL in relief ERA, and second in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, besting L.A. in all three categories. They only needed an upgrade in their rotation to pose a serious threat to the Dodgers’ recent hegemony in the division. The Diamondbacks got their man in Greinke and backed him up with a stunning trade for Shelby Miller, but Arizona overpaid for both players, committing $206.5 million over six years to the 32-year-old Greinke and giving up too much talent, including a more valuable major leaguer in outfielder Ender Inciarte, to land Miller.
San Francisco, already in possession of a young ace in Madison Bumgarner, didn’t need to go as big, but it did anyway, overpaying first for Jeff Samardzija at $90 million over five years and now for Cueto. Nonetheless, the Giants’ rotation, with Cueto in the second slot, Samarzija number three, veteran Jake Peavy number four and some combination of Matt Cain and Chris Heston in the fifth spot, may yet prove to be the best in the division.
For all of the concerns expressed about Cueto’s build (short, heavy), his history of shoulder problems, and his poor showing over the final two months of the 2015 season, he still stands as one of the best pitchers in the game. Among pitchers with 800 or more innings pitched from 2011 to 2015, only Clayton Kershaw has a lower ERA than Cueto’s 2.71 or a higher ERA+ than Cueto’s 145. Cueto was the deserving runner-up to Kershaw in the 2014 National League Cy Young voting for a season in which he went 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA (163 ERA+) while leading the league with 243 2/3 innings pitched and 242 strikeouts, and he was up to his usual tricks prior to the trade to Kansas City, posting a 2.62 ERA (151 ERA+) with a 0.93 WHIP and 4.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 starts for the Reds this past season.
Cueto’s struggles in Kansas City were also overstated. He had an ugly stretch of five starts from Aug. 21 to Sept. 13, but those were surrounded by seven quality starts and a postseason tune-up that just missed (5 IP, 1 R). Similarly, his disastrous outing in Toronto in the American League Championship Series (2 IP, 8 R), was bookended by two dominant home playoff starts in which he allowed just three runs in 17 innings. The first of those was a series clincher in a winner-take-all Game 5 against the Astros in the Division Series in which he retired the last 19 men he faced; the latter was a complete game victory over the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series.
Cueto may lack Bumgarner’s consistency, reliability and durability (shoulder inflammation limited him to 156 innings in 2011 and a chronic latissimus dorsi strain behind his pitching shoulder limited him to just 11 starts in 2013), but he’s very much a 1A-type starter in San Francisco, the right-handed Drysdale/Greinke to the left-handed Bumgarner’s Koufax/Kershaw. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Cueto, who will now pitch his home games in the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park where he has a 1.69 ERA in three regular season starts, out-pitch Greinke, whose home games will now be in the hitter-friendly Chase Field, in the coming season.
Nonetheless, despite being two years younger, Cueto is generally, and I believe correctly, regarded as a larger risk than the more athletic and consistently healthy Greinke. Indeed, our What’s He Really Worth? formula projected Cueto’s value over the next six seasons, his age-30 to -35 campaigns, to be just $93.1 million, not the $130 he has received. The concern there is his durability and the anticipation of an early decline. The opt-out in this contract is thus a fascinating one. It almost seems like a dare.
Cueto will reportedly receive $46 million for the next two seasons, after which he will have to decide whether or not he wants to test the free-agent market again heading into his age-32 season, as Greinke did this season, or effectively pick up a four-year, $84 million player option to remain with the Giants. Given the rapid expansion of MLB’s revenues, Johnny Cueto coming off two more healthy, effective seasons would seem like a lock to better those terms two years from now (consider that Samardzija, a far less accomplished pitcher, got $90 million over five years coming off an admittedly unlucky 4.96 ERA and heading into his age-31 season and that the price of a win increases every year). However, even a single disabled list stay for an arm issue or a Kansas City-like rough patch late in his second season could make that $84 million look like his best bet.
In the near term, however, the larger concern is the Giants’ effort to continue their pattern of even-year championships that dates back to 2010. With Cueto and Samardzija replacing Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum (combined 59 starts in 2015) in the rotation and hope for full, healthy, productive seasons from Hunter Pence and Joe Panik, the Giants are well positioned to win their first division title since 2012, with Greinke’s Diamondbacks, not the Dodgers, as their principle rivals.
Of course, this off-season is still far from over. The Dodgers, who have yet to officially announce the signing of Hisashi Iwakuma or make a decision about the suspended Aroldis Chapman trade, have yet to complete a major move. The Giants may yet upgrade leftfield, allowing Gregor Blanco to backup/split time with/replace Angel Pagan in center. Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton and Alex Gordon remain on the market, as do Dexter Fowler, Denard Span and numerous second-tier starters such as Mike Leake and Wei-Yin Chen. We’re still a long way from knowing what these teams will look like come April, but from our current vantage point, the Bumgarner-Cueto-Samardzija Giants look very good indeed.