SAN FRANCISCO — As they sorted through options at the Winter Meetings, Giants officials said they had a “slight lean” toward adding another starting pitcher instead of a left fielder. There was nothing slight about the move the organization made Monday.
The Giants agreed to a six-year, $130 million deal with right-hander Johnny Cueto, adding another frontline starter three days after introducing fellow right-hander Jeff Samardzija at AT&T Park. The Giants rotation, a major question mark in 2015, will now go: Madison Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Jake Peavy and Matt Cain, with Chris Heston serving as insurance.
Cueto’s deal, which is pending a physical, includes an opt-out after the second year, meaning he can go back into the market after the 2017 season if he chooses. The Giants hold a club option for a seventh year.
The 29-year-old Cueto, a native of the Dominican Republic, went 11-13 with a 3.44 ERA last season, with his numbers taking a big dip after a July trade to the Kansas City Royals. Cueto had a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts for the Royals, and alternated brilliant starts with rough ones in the postseason. Cueto gave up two runs over eight innings in Game 5 of the ALDS and then allowed just one run in a complete-game victory over the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series. In between, he allowed eight earned runs in his lone start in the ALCS.
Cueto’s overall big league resume is one of the best in this free agent class. He has a 3.30 career ERA and three 200-inning seasons in the last four, and he twice has finished in the top four in the Cy Young balloting. Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher who has thrown 500 innings since 2011 and has a lower ERA than Cueto’s 2.71.
So why was Cueto still looking for the right deal so late in the offseason? His performance in Kansas City — along with the fact that the Royals went out of their way to have him pitch at home and not in hostile road parks — scared off a few suitors. Then, there are the health issues. Cueto missed a start in May because of concern about his elbow, but an MRI revealed no tears or structural damage. He made just 11 starts in 2013 because of lat and shoulder problems, and most Giants fans likely know Cueto from the 2012 NLDS, when a strained oblique knocked him out of the series after just eight pitches.
The Giants are betting that Cueto is the pitcher who dominated in Cincinnati for so many years. And they’re betting big, as they did with Samardzija.
They now have guaranteed $220 million to two starters who had major issues in 2015 but were brilliant the year before. Samardzija posted a 2.99 ERA two seasons ago and Cueto went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 242 strikeouts. He finished second in the Cy Young voting behind Kershaw, who also won the MVP.
Including the Brandon Crawford extension, the Giants have now committed $295 million this offseason to three players. That should keep them in bargain-bin territory in the search for a new left fielder, but if Cueto and Samardzija pan out as hoped, the Giants won’t need much from the corner outfield spot.