It's always hilarious to compare the reaction to a rumor to the reaction to a confirmed deal. Back when the Diamondbacks reportedly offered six years, $120 million, I thought it was a ton of money, and I was glad the Giants weren't on the hook for it. Two weeks and a $10 million increase later, and I'm suddenly entertaining optimistic thoughts about next year. That makes no sense.
Of course, we weren't picturing Johnny Cueto in the rotation when he was just a hypothetical scenario. We were matching his deal up with all the other hypothetical deals, playing fantasy GM and waggling numbers around. Now we're imagining the rotation with Johnny Cueto, who finished second in the Cy Young voting just 13 months ago. What if he's excellent again? What if, man?
And then there's Jeff Samardzija, who led the American League in earned runs last year, but still throws a spicy meatball. He was an All-Star when Cueto was a Cy Young candidate. What if he's excellent again? What if, man? As fans, we have four months of closing our eyes, kicking back on the bed ...
... right, anyway, we have four months of doing that and picturing Madison Bumgarner, Cueto, and Samardzija all pitching as well as they can, with everyone on the roster staying healthy and productive.
Don't forget former Cy Young winner, Jake Peavy, and former ace, Matt Cain. Maybe the advances in medical science can make this the best rotation in Giants history! What if, man?
Most of us are all in the happy afterglow of the Giants making a huge deal that should help the team win more games next year. But there's a reason why I wasn't a fan of either Cueto and Samardzija, much less both of them on a Robinson Cano-sized package deal. We all know that expensive free agents are usually given contracts that will look like disasters at the end. The Angels didn't really think Albert Pujols was going to be a $30 million player when was 41, but that was the tax they paid to get his production in the seasons immediately following his contract. Pay for the next two or three seasons, and hope you get lucky, like the Cardinals did with Matt Holliday.
That's the typical risk, at least. With Cueto and Samardzija, though, the Giants have taken an entirely new risk with their free agent pitchers: They now have a rotation of Madison Bumgarner and four pitchers who just might not be very good next year. Both Cueto and Samardzija were lousy in the second half last season. Here's something I wrote back in 2007:
For the long term, I hate the move. For the short term, I love it. I'm glad it isn't Carlos Lee. Really, really, really glad.
And then Barry Zito went out and stunk right away. It was an immediate mess. And the similarities between Zito and Cueto don't just have to do with the team that signed them.
it's simply a coincidence but through age 28 Johnny Cueto had an 80 ERA- and a 94 FIP- and Barry Zito had an 80 ERA- and a 94 FIP-— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) December 14, 2015
Like Zito (and the Cain of old), Cueto has had success preventing runs at a rate that's better than his strikeout, walk, and home run totals predicted. Zito's luck ran out. Cain's luck ran out. There are pitchers who can keep this apparent ability up, and maybe Cueto is one of them. It's worth noting, though, that he's a risk even before you get to the arm questions.
Then you get to the arm questions. Did you catch the part where both Cueto and Samardzija were bad just a couple months ago? They were bad about a half-mile back. Really bad.
What this is, then, is the Giants being extremely confident in their ability to evaluate pitchers with their eyeballs. Cueto's struggles in the second half? Just one of those things. Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus took a look at his mechanics then:
Throwing a monkey wrench into mechanical timing is a dicey proposition, especially given the potential impact on pitch command, and though Cueto has shown the ability to harness some wild motions this new level of funk might be too much for him to contain. At some point, such tomfoolery loses all functionality and becomes a bigger detriment to the trickster than to his opponents
Maybe the Giants plan to reel his funky tics and quirks back in. Maybe they know what separates an effective Cueto from an ineffective one. And we're also hearing that Samardzija's real problem last year was that the White Sox tried to change the kind of pitcher he was, and he was also tipping pitches at the same time. This is Dick Tidrow and Dave Righetti looking at two pails of potential and saying, "Well, I fix it."
It'll be exciting to watch next year, and the ballpark will help the confidence of both pitchers. But it's been so long since the Giants have absorbed this kind of risk, it's hard to fathom that they're doing it with two pitchers who aren't guarantees to be excellent next year. Who aren't guarantees to be good, even.
They sure could be excellent, though. They sure could be. The Giants are paying two pitchers handsomely for that chance. If they're wrong, well, they had better be right about Phil Bickford and Tyler Beede. If they're right, this will be quite the even year. The 2015 Giants with an excellent rotation would have been a threat to win 100 games.
The 2015 Giants with Cueto and Samardzija might not have finished over .500.
It wasn't Ian Kennedy. We can certainly raise a glass to that, at least. Now let's get ready for some risk and hope for the appropriate reward. I'll hold you, but only if you hold me first.