His floppy dreads are bigger than he is, which is 5-10 going on 5-8, an ample belly at the core. He posts curious Instagram selfies — atop horses, with rifles in gun shops, on couches with his belt unfastened. To say his delivery is unorthodox is to forget it sometimes is illegal, with a slow spin toward second base giving batters a full look at his back, and then maybe a shimmy if not a total, against-the-rules stop.
This much is true: Johnny Cueto is a showman and a character.
“I always try to have fun on the mound, Twitter, Instagram,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m a guy who just likes to fool around.”
For $130 million, he’d better do more than that. The hopes and business sensibilities of the Giants rest on the heavily used right arm of Cueto, the fireballer who brings a frolicking buzz to an organization dominated these days by stoic professionalism. If he stays healthy, takes advantage of the pitcher’s paradise on the waterfront, doesn’t melt down mentally in hostile road ballparks and slides reliably into the rotation as the sorely needed No. 2 behind Madison Bumgarner, then, yes, the Giants can win the World Series again and justify early Vegas odds that favor them in the cherished even-numbered year.
Yet a closer inspection of Cueto, beyond the giddy spin Thursday at an AT&T Park press conference, suggests all of that is a whole lot to ask. The Giants don’t like giving nine-figure contracts to pitchers but had no choice after bidding low for Zack Greinke, whose $206.5 million deal in Arizona comes with a much higher level of certainty that he’ll pay off. Cueto, for the same six-year span, represents more of a crapshoot. Sure, if he fares well in his first two seasons, he can opt out of his contract in what would be a win/win for both parties — he will have done his job for the Giants, and he’d be rewarded with a larger deal elsewhere after the 2017 season. But if his right elbow continues to be problematic? Or if he crumbles, as he has in Toronto and Pittsburgh, when fans chant “Cue-to! Cue-to! Cue-to!” and render him useless in enemy October environments? Or if he loses his cool, as he once did when he kicked wildly and landed head blows during a brawl with the St. Louis Cardinals that landed him a seven-game suspension for “violent and aggressive” behavior?
Well, the Giants would be stuck with his contract until the end of the 2021 season. Which is exactly what they can’t have happen after the bad pitching contracts of Barry Zito and, apparently, Matt Cain. Greinke would have been worth the risk, given his craftsmanship and attention to detail, mechanics and long-term prosperity.
Cueto? Let’s just say CEO Larry Baer may have been wishfully thinking when he said, “Today is a great day for the Giants. We are thrilled, beyond thrilled, to have Johnny in the organization for at least seven years, with the option. To a person, we asked ourselves, ‘What single move can we make to improve our chances of returning to a World Series and winning?’ The one word was Cueto. It was a unanimous verdict to be able to get Johnny.”
I also think I heard a big, loud gulp. Certainly, I saw an awkward pause when Baer and general manager Bobby Evans waited for Cueto to button his No. 47 jersey over his midsection, with Baer having to adjust the jersey top so the entire GIANTS logo was visible. This is what is known in business as a necessary risk/reward. Having asked San Francisco voters to say yes to Proposition D, as they did, the Giants needed to spend their money and show that the Mission Rock real estate project will help them compete for championships, as Baer vowed. They have kept their promise, becoming the first team ever in Major League Baseball to sign two pitchers in one offseason with price tags of at least $90 million. The question, until we see evidence from Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, is whether they spent their $220 million wisely.
“God takes care of the numbers. God makes sure I show up on the field,” Cueto said through Erwin Higueros, an interview combo you should get used to. “I like the team. This is a team of champions.”
No one has more faith in the Giants’ ability to maximize talent and shine rough spots than I do. Dick Tidrow, resident pitching whisperer, has seen enough of Cueto to heartily endorse the signing. Dave Righetti remains one of the game’s best pitching coaches. Buster Posey, who sent Cueto a congratulatory text message, is the master of managing pitchers of all sizes, velocities and temperaments. But at some point, an elite organization can do only so much. Samardzija, for all the innings he can devour, also must prove he won’t get rocked too often as a workhorse. As for Cueto, he has to stay off the disabled list and out of trouble.
Can he? On the surface, only Clayton Kershaw has produced a better earned-run average since 2011 than Cueto’s 2.51 — that while pitching half his games in Cincinnati’s home-run-happy ballpark. Yet beginning in 2010, when he was suspended after the brawl, stuff has happened to this guy.
In 2011, he started and ended the season on the disabled list.
In 2012, against the Giants in Game 1 of the National League divisional series, he left after eight pitches with a strained back muscle. “I can’t remember much. Obviously, I wasn’t able to pitch,” he said. “I do remember the Giants came from behind to win it all.”
In 2013, he made only 11 regular-season starts because of injuries. Then came the mocking chants in Pittsburgh, which was hosting its first playoff game in 20 years, rattling Cueto after a home run to the point he dropped the ball off the mound — and then allowed another homer, leading to his exit and a quick Reds elimination.
He was great in 2014, prompting me, among others, to urge the Giants to acquire him last summer when the worn-out likes of Cain, Tim Lincecum and Tim Hudson were proving not to be smart front-office bets. But then came hints of elbow problems and his worst ERA (3.44) and opponents’ OPS (.675) in six years. He struggled mightily in August and September and was brutal in an American League championship series start in Toronto, where the fans, recalling the Pittsburgh debacle, repeated the same “Cue-to! Cue-to!” chants — and watched him disintegrate again. He became the first postseason pitcher to allow as many as eight earned runs and 11 baserunners over two or fewer innings.
“I felt great in the bullpen,” Cueto said. “When I got into the game, God only knows.”
So, can the Giants depend on him in the postseason on the road? When he did succeed for the Royals last October, including a two-hit complete-game shutout in Game 2 of a trumphant World Series, didn’t manager Ned Yost arrange the rotation knowing he couldn’t afford a Cueto road start? And his 480²⁄³ innings the last two years — aren’t they the third-most in the majors, with Bumgarner just ahead of him at 488¹⁄³? “Last year is in the past,” Cueto said of the elbow. “I had an MRI [Wednesday], and that’s why I’m wearing a Giants jersey today. Everything is fine.”
A thinking Giants fan should have concerns. In one sense, Baer should thank Cueto heartily for rejecting a deal weeks ago that could have really damaged the Giants. Had he taken Arizona’s pitch of $120 million over six, maybe the Diamondbacks wouldn’t have signed Greinke, and he would have returned to the Dodgers. Then where would the Giants be today? And if you think Cueto got more money here, think again: The difference in state income taxes means he’ll actually clear less with the Giants, despite the $10 million disparity.
Now, it’s the Dodgers who are in the dark, dealing with protests from fans who wonder how they plan on replacing Greinke. Trading for Klay Thompson’s brother isn’t what they have in mind.
“God knows what’s going to happen,” Johnny Cueto said. “God is the one who has us here. I hope to win it all in 2016. The Giants have won three world titles in even years. I helped Kansas City win a championship.”
The math works. The logic, in the end, may not.