There’s a “strong possibility” that righty Johnny Cueto will require Tommy John surgery, Giants manager Bruce Bochy told reporters today, including Kerry Crowley of the Bay Area News Group (via Twitter). Cueto was placed on the disabled list earlier this evening.
Though clearly a final decision has yet to be made, it’s obviously poor news for a Giants organization that surely hoped for quite a bit more from the veteran starter. Cueto already missed over two months of the season due to a sprained right elbow, and he clearly hasn’t been pitching at full capacity since his return — the veteran righty has a 6.86 ERA in his four starts (21 IP) since being activated off the 60-day disabled list.
Between that extended stint and a brief 10-day DL stay due to a sprained ankle in April, Cueto seems set to finish his 2018 campaign with only 53 innings pitched. To make matters even more frustrating for both the player and his team, Cueto’s numbers over his first five starts were outstanding. He has a microscopic 0.84 ERA over his first 32 innings of the season, doing his best to carry an injury-riddled Giants rotation in April. It appeared as though Cueto had bounced back from a subpar 2017, but he now faces a major injury setback that will keep him sidelined for potentially all of the 2019 season, given the 12-16 month recovery window for Tommy John patients.
Cueto has generally been a durable arm over his career, notching four seasons of 200+ innings since 2012. He had a minor elbow issue in 2015, though that didn’t stop the Giants from signing Cueto to a six-year, $130MM contract in the 2015-16 offseason, and Cueto certainly didn’t look anything less than first-rate in his initial season in San Francisco (2.79 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 4.4 K/BB rate over 219 2/3 innings). A flexor strain and some blister issues cropped up in 2017, however, and Cueto managed just a 4.52 ERA over 147 1/3 innings.
This performance led Cueto to forego exercising his player opt-out clause following the 2017 season, leaving the Giants fully on the hook for the remainder of the contract. Cueto is owed $21MM in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and the Giants have a $22MM club option for the 2022 campaign that carries a $5MM buyout. Next year’s salary is now all but a write-off for the team, and since Cueto turns 33 in February, it can’t be certain that he’ll resume his front-of-the-rotation form when he eventually does return.
Tonight’s win over the Padres brought the Giants’ record to an even 54-54, and with a third of the season to go, the club is five games back in the NL West race and 5.5 games out of a wild card slot. Giants GM Bobby Evans recently indicated that his team still saw itself as a contender, and have been connected to a variety of names on the trade market in recent days. With the Giants already trying to thread the needle of making deadline upgrades without putting payroll over the luxury tax threshold, however, it could be that Cueto’s absence may turn San Francisco towards selling. MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi has reported that the Giants are indeed now open to trading pending free agents as they look ahead to 2019.
Without Cueto, the Giants’ rotation for next season currently projects as ace Madison Bumgarner (whose $12MM club option is an no-brainer pickup), a veteran who has dealt with his own share of injury problems in Jeff Samardzija, Andrew Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez (who have both pitched well in their rookie seasons). The Giants could look internally and give Ty Blach or Chris Stratton another crack at the fifth starter’s job, or it’s also possible the team could look to add a more established arm this winter. The Giants will be in a position to spend, after all, since they’ll only be charged the first-time offenders’ rate for luxury tax overages after getting back under the tax limit this season. The Brian Sabean/Bobby Evans front office hasn’t been shy about making bold moves for veterans, so expect the Giants to be linked to several big-name pitchers on the free agent and trade fronts this offseason.