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Johnny Cueto is almost certainly coming back next year, and that’s not a bad thing

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What was once unthinkable is now the likeliest scenario. You’re right to be conflicted.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Johnny Cueto was supposed to be one of the reasons the 2017 Giants were going to make the postseason. He was one of the biggest reason the 2016 Giants made the postseason, and he was the biggest reason the Cubs were slightly terrified about a Game 5 in the NLDS. He was awesome, so awesome, and the Giants had a 1-2 punch that was the envy of baseball.

And then 2017 happened.

Cueto missed the first half of spring training to be with his sick father, got a late start on the season, and wasn’t even close to the pitcher he was in 2016. He was one of the many pitchers to fall victim to the Great Blister Curse of the last two years, and when he was rehabbing from that, he felt forearm pain. Before that pain was diagnosed, it was obvious that Cueto was going to be back. Even though the injury wasn’t as serious as it could have been, his decision to stay is even more obvious now, even if he comes back and has the best month of his career.

It’s not just me who thinks this. From Jon Heyman:

It appears too risky now for Johnny Cueto to opt out of his $84-million, four-year deal, as he’s been dogged by blister issues this year. “No chance he opts out,” one exec says.

Yesterday, Andrew Baggarly wrote about another supporter of that theory:

“Well, I just assume,” Bochy said. “I stay on the positive side. He’s got the choice, but right now he’s with us and until he’s not, I’m planning on him being with us.”

Bochy is a fan of the idea of more Cueto. He’s not the one signing the checks, just the guy filling in the lineup. And the thought of Cueto sticking around pleases him.

Before I agree with that sentiment, we should look at what Cueto returning means for the Giants. Here is what he’s owed over the next four years:

  • $21 million
  • $21 million
  • $21 million
  • $26 million (including $5 million buyout for next season)

He’ll be 35 by the end of the deal. Greg Maddux pitched seven years after turning 35. Roy Halladay had an ERA in the sixes and retired after turning 35. Lotta permutations, here.

Not only that, but that last season will be 2021, and the Giants will owe Cueto, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford a combined $75.6 million. All four will be well into their 30s. All four of them might still be good. All four of them might have been devoured by fanged time, which gets us all. Cueto’s decision not to opt out might look mighty different in four years.

For now, though, this is what I keep coming back to:

Free agent pitchers who will be more expensive than Johnny Cueto’s four years, $89 million

  • Yu Darvish
  • Jake Arrieta

Free agent pitchers who will come close

  • Lance Lynn
  • Masahiro Tanaka

Free agent pitchers who won’t be more expensive, but won’t be cheap

  • Alex Cobb
  • Jason Vargas

The rest

  • Andrew Cashner
  • CC Sabathia
  • Jhoulys Chacin
  • Trevor Cahill
  • Michael Pineda
  • Jaime Garcia
  • Matt Garza
  • Scott Feldman
  • Miguel Gonzalez
  • Jeremy Hellickson
  • John Lackey
  • Tyler Chatwood
  • Marco Estrada
  • Mike Pelfrey
  • Clayton Richard
  • Wade Miley
  • Doug Fister
  • Ubaldo Jimenez
  • Tyson Ross
  • Brett Anderson
  • Bronson Arroyo
  • Clay Buchholz
  • Bartolo Colon
  • Derek Holland
  • Edwin Jackson

The Giants will have no shot at the first group. Yu Darvish might get $200 million. I’m not sure, but I think I would rather have Cueto at half the price.

The Giants might have explored the second group without Cueto’s contract. I’m not sure, but I think I would rather have Cueto at a similar price.

The Giants definitely would have explored the third group without Cueto’s contract. I’m pretty sure I would rather have Cueto at a higher price.

It’s the last group that makes me pause. Would the Giants have been better off with, say, CC Sabathia and the money saved on Cueto spent on J.D. Martinez? What about Chris Stratton in the rotation and Lorenzo Cain in center field for the same price? Those are hypothetical scenarios worth debating.

But looking at that free agent market, I’m almost happy to gamble on Cueto’s contract. The alternative was to go in-house for next year’s rotation, which wasn’t likely to work, or spend scores of millions, which seems just as risky as Cueto coming back. It would be one thing if the Giants had a robust farm system, with pitchers like Luke Weaver banging on the door. They do not.

It would be different if that robust farm system was good enough to tempt other teams into trading their best starting pitchers. It is not.

There was a great chance that the 2017 Giants were going to have an enviable rotation. There’s still a decent chance that the 2018 team will have the same, so long as they avoid the dirt bikes and blisters. I’m not sure that could have been the case if Cueto left, so before lamenting all of that money disappearing from the 2018 budget, take a second to appreciate what it might be buying. It should be better than we enjoyed this season.

Everything should, really.