If you were to sit down and make a list of the best pitchers in baseball from 2010-16, you’d be hard-pressed not to include Johnny Cueto in some capacity. The two-time All-Star finished among the top six in National League Cy Young voting three times in that stretch, including a runner-up finish to Clayton Kershaw in 2014. He received at least one down-ballot MVP vote in all three of those seasons as well. From 2010-16, Cueto turned in a 2.86 ERA, a 20.6% strikeout rate (at a time when that number was much more impressive than it is in 2022) and a terrific 6.2% walk rate. Cueto was viewed as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, and rightly so. He ranked fourth out of 228 qualified starting pitchers in ERA during that time, and his 1294 2/3 innings were the 16th-most in baseball.
Given that context, it’s no surprise that Cueto hit the open market as one of the most in-demand free agents in the game following the 2015 season. He’d struggled a bit following his trade from Cincinnati to Kansas City, but Cueto’s final impression on the Royals was a two-hit, one-run complete game in Game 2 of the World Series, which the Royals won 7-1. Not a bad way to set out into free agency for the first time.
Cueto’s six-year, $132MM contract with the Giants made him the third-highest-paid pitcher of the 2015-16 offseason, trailing only David Price and Zack Greinke’s pair of $200MM+ deals (and beating MLBTR’s expectations by a year in the process). For the first year of his contract, the signing looked quite strong. Cueto hurled 219 2/3 innings of 2.79 ERA ball, made the All-Star team, and enjoyed both Cy Young and MVP votes in his first year with San Francisco. The Giants’ “even-year” dynasty was cut short at three years (2010, 2012, 2014) — but not for any fault of Cueto’s. He made one appearance in the playoffs that winter and took a brutal complete-game loss that saw him allow just one run on three hits and no walks with 10 strikeouts against the eventual-champion Cubs.
Cueto missed a handful of starts in 2017 due to an ongoing blister issue and wasn’t at his best when healthy. His 4.52 ERA that year was his worst since his rookie campaign back in 2008, and it was a particularly poorly-timed slump, as Cueto could’ve opted out of the final four years of his contract and tested the market a second time, had he turned in another healthy season of Cy-caliber results. Ankle and elbow injuries wound up hobbling Cueto in 2018, and by August of that season, he was headed for Tommy John surgery. Cueto returned late in the 2019 season and tossed 16 pedestrian innings, and his work in the shortened 2020 campaign was the worst of his career (5.40 ERA, career-high walk rate).
Expectations for Cueto were light heading into the 2021 season, then, which made his rebound effort with the Giants something of a pleasant surprise. Cueto missed nearly a month with a lat strain and was on the IL for much of September with an elbow strain. The latter of those two injuries is particularly concerning, since we didn’t see much from Cueto after he hit the IL. He made a lone rehab appearance in the minors (1 2/3 innings) and pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief in the Majors on Sept. 30.
It’s not a great note on which to end a season, but Cueto’s 92 mph velocity in that final outing was right in line with what he’d done throughout the season. And, when he was healthy, Cueto was the best version of himself fans and opponents had seen in years. No, this wasn’t Cy Young runner-up Cueto, but it was a very serviceable version of the quirky right-hander, who slotted nicely into the fourth spot in a deep San Francisco rotation.
At 35 years old, Cueto wasn’t the fireballer he was earlier in his career, but his 91.9 mph average fastball velocity was the highest mark he’d posted since that outstanding 2016 campaign. His 6.1% walk rate was also his best mark since that ’16 effort, and Cueto’s 9.7% swinging-strike rate and 31.4% opponents’ chase rate were his best marks since 2017. Cueto’s average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate were all better than the league average, and his walk rate was in the 81st percentile of MLB pitchers.
Cueto was much more effective through his first dozen starts of the season (3.63 ERA) than over his final nine appearances (4.72), but perhaps some late fatigue was to be expected. His first “full” season back from Tommy John surgery, after all, was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. The 2021 season was the first time since 2017 that Cueto had started the season healthy in April and was still trying to pitch into August and September.
The end result of Cueto’s 2021 campaign was a respectable 4.08 ERA and peripherals that largely backed him up (4.05 FIP, 4.27 xFIP, 4.43 SIERA). It’s not necessarily a dominant profile, and projection systems are down on him by virtue of factoring in his ugly 2019-20 results in the wake of Tommy John surgery. ZiPS has him at 92 innings of 4.43 ERA ball. Steamer is more bullish in workload (144 innings) but much more bearish in results (5.05 ERA). You’re forgiven if you are not overly optimistic for Cueto’s outlook in 2022 and beyond. The past few years, taken as a whole, have not been great.
A team that’s more focused on Cueto’s 2021 characteristics — the increase in velocity over 2018-20, the upticks in swinging strikes and chases — might see things differently, however. Cueto shouldn’t be penciled in for a return to his halcyon days of 200-plus innings and 33 starts, but he did make all 12 of his starts in 2020 and was more healthy in 2021 than he’s been since undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s not the complete-game threat and workhorse he once was, but Cueto averaged 5 1/3 innings per start in ’21 and had been averaging about 5 2/3 per outing up until the All-Star break. It’s not out of the question that he could bounce back a bit further and make 24 to 25 starts with average or better results. At his per-start output, that clocks in somewhere in the range of 130 to 140 innings.
Maybe 135 innings of low-4.00s ERA doesn’t jump up and excite fans, but for the right team, that’s plenty valuable. The prevailing, but often incorrect, mentality is that every team possesses some guys in Triple-A who could come up and fill that role. However, there were only 89 pitchers in MLB last season who pitched at least 80 innings and posted an ERA under 4.25 — about three per team, on average. Bulk sources of respectable innings don’t necessarily grow on trees.
Clubs that already have solid options in the top four spots of their rotation could look to Cueto as a fairly affordable means of rounding things out. The Mets, Mariners, Blue Jays, Braves, Cubs and the incumbent Giants all fit that billing to varying extents. A team in need of filling out multiple rotation spots (e.g. Twins, Nationals, Rangers) might look for a bit more reliability, but perhaps even they’d see some merit in installing Cueto as a steadying presence while awaiting the arrival of some younger arms.
Regardless of Cueto’s eventual destination, it’s a bit surprising that he’s become something of a forgotten man this time around in free agency. There’s been nary a word about his market since the Giants opted for a $5MM buyout over a $22MM club option for the 2022 season. At a net $17MM, that option was never getting picked up, but Cueto had a decent rebound campaign in ’21 and probably ought to be getting a little more consideration as fans, pundits and teams alike consider the post-lockout market. He might not command more than a one-year deal, and that comes with serious bargain potential — relative to other names who’ve signed thus far, anyway.
Corey Kluber got $8MM from the Rays, and Cueto pitched as much in 2021 as Kluber has over the past three years combined. Jordan Lyles received a $7MM guarantee from the Orioles despite leading the Majors with 38 homers allowed last year and leading the Majors in earned runs allowed since 2020. Andrew Heaney got $8.5MM from the Dodgers. The Red Sox gave $7MM to Michael Wacha. This isn’t to disparage any of those deals individually. The teams paying those salaries are paying for varying levels of perceived upside, relative youth and/or bulk innings. However, it’s hard to see those figures and think Cueto won’t command something similar, if not better. And if he does clock in south of that range due to concerns over the late elbow issue, he has some significant bargain potential.
It seems silly to call a multi-time All-Star and former Cy Young candidate who just finished up a nine-figure deal “overlooked,” but Cueto hasn’t gotten much attention even in terms of pure free-agent speculation, despite the fact that he just turned in a pretty decent season overall.