Johnny Cueto will receive $130 million over the next six years as a member of the San Francisco Giants. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Cueto no sure fit for desperate Giants

There is a perfectly plausible reason, of course, why Buster Posey ignored California’s epic drought and was busted as a water guzzler of ridiculous proportions. He requires 3,400 gallons a day at his Lafayette home to maintain his squeaky-clean image. Posey is the centerpiece of a Giants clubhouse built on chemistry, professionalism and equilibrium … and now inherits the talented but maddeningly mercurial Johnny Cueto.

Seems he brings only drama and unpredictability to an all-business room where, otherwise, there is no drama.

Wanting no part of $200-million-plus deals for Zack Greinke and David Price, the Giants had no choice Monday but to sign the booby prize of the offseason big-name pitching derby. At $130 million over six years, Cueto is no more a sure thing than Jeff Samardzija is at $90 million over five seasons, meaning the braintrust has invested more money on two major gambles than they would have on the transcendent Greinke alone. He’ll be a lockdown ace in Arizona for several seasons at an overall price of $206.5 million. For $220 million, the Giants are investing in one starter (Samardzija) who was tipping his pitches in a horrendous 2015 season and another (Cueto) who was as wildly ineffective down the stretch for Kansas City as he was brilliant in a Game 2 victory that set up the Royals for a World Series championship.

The Diamondbacks know what they’re getting in Greinke. The Boston Red Sox know what they’re getting in Price. The Giants have absoutely no idea what they’re getting in Cueto and Samardzija, other than two righthanders whose deliveries come with a lot of wild-flying hair. In Cueto’s case, they also must deal with an ongoing elbow issue in his throwing arm, the sort of problem that caused CEO Larry Baer such consternation about signing Greinke, who has had no serious arm injuries as a pitching craftsman and might have a career well into the next decade.

Does this strategy make any sense? When the Giants have said they don’t want to repeat the long-term mistakes of signing Barry Zito ($126 million over seven years) and Matt Cain ($127.5 over six), why go down the same uncertain path with two more second-plateau red-flaggers? Yes, every acclaimed free-agent arm should carry a CAUTION warning in what is an annual fraught-filled crapshoot, but there’s a reason teams prioritized Greinke and Price: Their arms are most likely to be worth the expenditures in the long run, in terms of individual production and team success. Last season, while Greinke and Price were carrying their clubs to the postseason, Cueto and Samardzija had a combined second-half earned-run average of 5.29. Dave Righetti is a master pitching coach, but last I looked, he was not an elbow doctor or a shrink.

At least baseball bosses Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, fresh off a Samardzija press conference that oddly sounded like a celebration, have recalibrated their general thought process. They’ve finally remembered that AT&T Park is a pitcher’s best friend and loaded up the rotation with starters who’ve had success. After passing on Cueto last summer, when he seemed a surer bet, and then swinging and missing on Mike Leake, who will be headed elsewhere now, they’ve now surrounded Madison Bumgarner with Cueto, Samardzija and some combination — depending on health and performance — of Jake Peavy, Chris Heston and Cain.

If they’re all doing well from April to October, then, damn, the Giants might just blaze to another pennant in the even-numbered season.

If some arms break down and others don’t perform, the D-Backs will win the National League West and the Chicago Cubs will win the NL pennant.

“Johnny has always been, and rightly so, very high on our list … high on our short list,” Evans said. “He’s somebody we’ve admired for a long time.

“He’s not a guy that you relish facing. You have a guy who has a chance to be an elite presence in your rotation if he’s healthy and we can play good defense behind him and use our ballpark to our advantage. Johnny has upside beyond his 2015 final numbers.”

For $130 million.

No doubt the Monday response on King Street came after the Cubs spent mightily on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. We no longer can suggest the Giants deceived San Francisco voters when asking them to pass Proposition D, as they did resoundingly, clearing another hurdle for their Mission Rock real-estate development that Baer says will help the franchise compete for high-priced talent. Now, the Giants can say they’ve spent their money, having also locked up All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford for the long term.

HOW they’re spending their money is what’s vexing.

Just two seasons ago, Cueto was lights-out in Cincinnati, leading the NL with 242 strikeouts in 243.2 innings while posting a a 2.25 ERA. Since 2011, only Clayton Kershaw had had a better ERA among major-league starters. But the barking right elbow, as he nears 30, turned him into something less early last season, and the Reds traded him to the Royals. He stunk in August and part of September, establishing a pattern of pitching poorly on the road before making the worst kind of history in Game 3 of the American League championship series. He gave up eight runs and six hits in two innings of what would be an 11-8 loss in Toronto, where the fans brutally heckled him. Especially bothersome was what Cueto did as he walked off the field amid the mocking, name-chanting delirium.

He smiled. And kept smiling.

Which came two years after he dropped a ball as fans chanted his name in Pittsburgh, which led to a Reds playoff meltdown.

What happens in Los Angeles, Chicago and other places when they chant Cueto’s name? Will he fall apart again? And how does that go over in a clubhouse with cool customers like Posey, Bumgarner, Crawford and Hunter Pence?

“That’s just part of his DNA,” explained a Royals coach, Pedro Grifol, serving as Cueto’s translator that day. “That’s what comes out. But there wasn’t any laughing about it.”

Five years have passed since Cueto was suspended seven games after his role in a brawl with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pushed against the backstop during a moving scrum, Cueto kicked violently at several Cardinals players — connecting with the head of catcher Jason LaRue, who suffered another in a series of concussions that ended his career. That was a while ago.

But it isn’t Giant-like.

Nor was an explanation by Samardzija about his troubles last season. “When you’re tipping your pitches, it’s hard to have tons of success,” he said. “Everyone’s got film on you, hours and hours of film from years and years. There are people paid good money to figure out weaknesses. Once you’re OK with that and OK with finding your own weaknesses and improving them, then you’ll be OK. You learn a lot about yourself in those situations, when the last thing you want to do is go out there and grab a ball again and face Miguel Cabrera again. You do it with all your heart, and you learn a lot about yourself.”

Then came his defense of pitching salaries, which are absurd in the scope of Planet Earth. “It’s not easy what we do,” Samardzija said. “I think a lot of it from afar is simple, right? You see it on TV, it goes over a plate. Eight other guys catch it, whoop dee doo. I challenge anybody that wants a slice of what Price made or what Greinke made to come on out and throw a ball over a plate at 96 mph to Carlos Beltran and see what happens. It’s a tough sport.”

Again, the Giants spent $220 million for these two projects.

Zack Greinke, at $206.5 million, was a much better idea.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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