SAN FRANCISCO — Two aces dominated the hot stove talk over the weekend for two very different reasons. Jordan Zimmermann, the longtime National, signed a $110 million deal with the Tigers. Johnny Cueto, the Red-turned-Royal, reportedly turned down a six-year, $120 million offer from the Diamondbacks.
Zimmermann’s deal means the Giants just lost a potential option to fill out their rotation, but he wasn’t the priority anyway. All indications are that the Giants are still going hard after Zack Greinke first and foremost, with a legitimate chance to pry him away from the rival Dodgers. If they lose out on the Cy Young runner-up the Giants still will be in dire need of pitching, and while they're an option for David Price, the industry consensus seems to be that the Red Sox will come way over the top of any other offer.
That could leave Cueto as the best starting pitcher left on the market. As we did with Greinke last week, let's take a look at the pros and cons of such a move.
PRO: Cueto turns 30 in February, and it’s hard to argue with the resume. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Cueto has been one of the best starters in the majors since a 2010 breakthrough. He has a 3.30 career ERA, three 200-inning seasons in the last four, and two top-four Cy Young finishes. Of all pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings since 2011, only Clayton Kershaw has a lower ERA than Cueto’s 2.71, and Cueto pitched many of those innings in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park.
Cueto’s 2014 season was brilliant. He led the league with 243 2/3 innings and 242 strikeouts, finishing 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. He followed that up with a 2.62 ERA in his first 19 starts for the Reds this year before a trade to the Royals (we’ll get to that part shortly).
CON: Every pitcher is a health risk, but there are a few additional concerns to note with Cueto. He missed a start in May because of an elbow issue, but an MRI revealed no tears or structural damage. Still, given the way he pitched in Kansas City in the second half, the Giants and any other suitors surely will want to run their own tests to make sure there are no elbow issues. Cueto made just 11 starts in 2013 as he dealt with lat and shoulder problems, and the Giants benefited greatly when a strained oblique knocked Cueto out of Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS after just eight pitches. The Giants are willing to spend $150 million on a pitcher if they believe he’ll hold up, but Cueto appears to carry some extra risk.
PRO: Cueto’s postseason game log is a bizarre one, and he has a 5.35 ERA over seven starts for the Reds and Royals. But, there is certainly proof that Cueto can handle a big stage, and for a team that eyes World Series titles, Cueto’s 2015 postseason can be viewed as a net positive. He was passable in his first ALDS start and then sharp in Game 5, giving up two runs over eight innings as the Royals topped the Astros. Cueto got shelled by the Blue Jays in his lone ALCS start, but he bounced back with a complete game two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series, helping the Royals top the Mets. A lot of baseball fans likely remember Cueto dropping the ball as Pirates fans heckled him during a Wild Card Game, and he certainly pitched poorly that night. But he showed his moxie as he repeatedly tucked his glove under his arm and slowly strutted off the field in that World Series start last month. Under the right circumstances (and it should be noted that the Royals seemed to alter their rotation to guarantee home postseason starts for Cueto), this is a pitcher who can absolutely own an October game, and that would be a nice boost for a team that already has this generation's best postseason starter.
CON: So … what exactly happened after the midseason trade? Cueto helped the Royals in October, but he didn’t live up to expectations as they approached the postseason. Cueto had a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts for the Royals and allowed 28 runs during one particularly ugly five-start stretch. If you sign Cueto, are you getting the guy who dominated for years in Cincinnati and stifled the Mets in the World Series, or are you getting the guy who allowed opposing hitters to post a .295/.342/.443 slash line in the second half of 2015?
PRO: The Giants won’t consider this, but here on the Internet, we must. Cueto would immediately become the Giants’ most intriguing social media presence. His Instagram page is a goldmine. No, seriously, it’s a gift. Throw in the occasional wiggle GIF and Giants Twitter certainly would enjoy a Cueto Era.
PREDICTION: Per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Cueto is apparently looking to land in the $140-160 million neighborhood. If the Giants miss on Greinke and Price, would they offer Cueto the Lester deal, or would they rather give that money to two guys, like Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake? You can make a strong argument that the safer choice would be to choose two second-tier guys and hope that one of them ends up outperforming Cueto, who certainly seems to carry the kind of risk that spooks this ownership group. The guess here is that Cueto finds his big deal elsewhere, although the Giants have checked in on him and they will certainly be tempted to take the chase more seriously if Greinke and Price are no longer available.