In 2020, the evenest of all even years, we might look back at this moment and appreciate how it changed the direction of the franchise for the better. Johnny Cueto left a minor-league rehab game with forearm tightness, which are words that will almost guarantee he won’t get a four-year, $79 million contract on the open market.
Which means he’ll probably be a Giants pitcher next year.
Though that doesn’t mean he’ll actually pitch.
See, forearm tightness is often shorthand for torn elbow ligaments, which means Tommy John surgery might be coming. It’s not a guarantee of that, and I’m certainly not a doctor. It’s just what I’ve grown accustomed to expecting because I’m lazy and my brain is comfortable with patterns.
Here’s a tweet from 2013:
Dave's says Strasburg has tightness in forearm. Getting medication. Doctors examining.— Dan Kolko (@masnKolko) April 30, 2013
Strasburg made 30 starts that year, and he made 34 the next year, finishing ninth in the Cy Young voting. Or maybe this from 2011 will make you feel better because it’s specifically applicable to Cueto:
Cueto left after 2 innings because of tightness in his right forearm. Felt on breaking pitches. "I'm fine." #reds— John Fay (@johnfayman) March 11, 2011
Cueto finished that season with a 2.31 ERA and the next with a 2.78 ERA and a fourth-place Cy Young finish. Forearm tightness doesn’t have to mean anything substantial is wrong. Cueto might have been ultra-cautious, as you would expect him to be.
Edit: For once, things aren’t so bad???
Cueto has no ligament damage. Giants say they got good news overall.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) August 1, 2017
It's officially a mild flexor strain for Cueto. Good news, although certainly complicates big-picture decisions.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) August 1, 2017
The overall point still stands. This isn’t a pitcher who is going to inspire nine-figure confidence going into the offseason. He’s probably opting in and staying with the Giants.
Still, that doesn’t mean this is a story without ramifications for Cueto’s future. He’s going to see the Giants’ team doctors on Tuesday, and it’s possible that everything is mostly fine. He’ll still be shut down for a bit. Possibly a couple weeks. Possibly for the rest of the season.
If that’s the case, Cueto will hit free agency ...
- After one of his worst seasons in the majors
- Before turning 32
- In a season that featured a struggle with blisters for the first time
- After being diagnosed with the dreaded “forearm tightness”
You’re a GM, and your job is to sell an owner on why that combination is worth more than four years, $79 million. Good luck.
Cueto and his agent know this, and I’m struggling to think of an August/September scenario that changes this. Five straight shutouts? J.A. Happ got $36 million after 11 starts that suggested he was reborn. Ivan Nova got $40 million after 11 starts, too. It’s possible that Cueto’s Cy Young-quality track record would double that.
I’ll set the over/under on starts made by Cueto for the rest of the season at 3.5, though, and take the under. He’s not going to get $79 million. There’s a fair chance he wouldn’t get half of that guaranteed money.
One possible option would be to sign something like a three-year deal for $30 million, with an opt-out after the first season. That way he makes sure he get something guaranteed, but also doesn’t eliminate the possibility of one more super payday. Agents and teams are creative, and Cueto might be willing to risk a half or two-thirds of that guaranteed money to pick where he gets to play and keep his chances of a bigger payday open.
That’s if his forearm tightness isn’t that serious, though. And you’ll notice that I’m not embedding any tweets about forearm tightness in which the story ends with Tommy John. There are too many of them.
If you’re enamored of Cueto’s pitching when he’s healthy, you can look at this like a blessing in disguise. The best-case scenario would be for him to be fine and understandably hesitant about testing the open market, sticking with the Giants for four more very productive, fun seasons. It’s not the likeliest scenario. Pitchers tend to age like avocados instead of wine, but I could also see Cueto pitching until he’s 43, health permitting.
For now, though, there’s a chance that the Giants will owe $79 million to a pitcher with a brutally uncertain future. This will affect what they do in the offseason. It’ll affect what they do the offseason after that.
It’ll kind of affect everything.
This season just won’t let up, people. I understand it was the Faustian bargain we made for the three World Series championships, and I’m okay with that. That doesn’t mean it isn’t stunning. This season just won’t quit with the surprises, even though we’ve asked nicely for the surprises to stop coming. Johnny Cueto might have elbow problems, and everything is awful.
Keep hoping for that silver lining, though. Keep hoping.
Edit: An earlier version of this article overestimated the contract Cueto would have to beat on the open market. It was Doug’s fault, probably.