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Johnny Cueto, shimmying wonder, is crucial to the Giants’ plans

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The Giants decided not to rebuild in part because they’re expecting the top of the rotation to contribute more. Cueto is a huge part of that.

MLB: Spring Training-San Francisco Giants at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Johnny Cueto was going to opt out. We knew it. He knew it. After finishing sixth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2016, there was no way he was going to be so hurt and ineffective that he passed up his last chance at a huge payday. There was just no way. And then he was so hurt and ineffective that he passed up his last chance at a huge payday.

I’ve never seen a decision quite like Cueto’s, though, where both the player and team were furrowing their brow and thinking, “Ehhhhhhhhhhhh, yeaaaaaaaah, this is probably okay?” after the decision was made. Options aren’t supposed to work like that. There’s usually one party that’s ticked off, like when Wei-Yin Chen sheepishly opted into all the money that the Marlins had guaranteed for him. In this case, neither the Giants and Cueto have spent the last few months wallowing in regret.

Cueto certainly dodged a bullet by avoiding this offseason of collusionusterity, but the Giants weren’t exactly displeased to get him back, even if they’re paying him ace money until he’s 35. He carries similar risks to Jake Arrieta, for example, who’s making similar money now. The Giants probably would have spent Cueto money on somebody else this offseason, and before you get excited about how it could have been Yu Darvish, consider that ZiPS projects Darvish for 168 innings with a 3.27 ERA and a 4.3 WAR, while projecting Cueto for 174 innings with a 3.62 ERA and 2.7 WAR. They aren’t that far apart, at least according to the computers.

In a very real sense, Cueto was the 2017 Giants. Horrifically disappointing. Unlucky. Injury marred. Probably much better than the results on the field indicated. So it makes sense that he’s all of the hopes of the 2018 Giants in one neat package, too.

The 2018 Giants — Come on, all of those guys aren’t really that bad, right?

That applies to Cueto more than anyone else. When the team was building its offseason plan, it’s his presence that helped them put off the great rebuild. With a rotation that should feature three 200 inning pitchers who allow fewer runs than their peers, isn’t it worth it to explore all of the possibilities when it comes to improving the lineup? Isn’t there some value in trying one last time?

We’ll see! But if the Giants didn’t start the offseason with Cueto, and they were staring down the barrel of Matt Moore, Ty Blach, Chris Stratton, and the need to spend $75 million on a new pitcher, it’s easy to see how their focus might have been much, much different.

As is, they looked at Bumgarner/Cueto/Samardzija and said, dammit, why wouldn’t this work with an improved lineup? All that needs to happen is for Cueto to be good again.

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so

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let’s hope that happens?

He hasn’t thrown a ton in the spring because of some barfy-flu, but what he’s showed has been impressive. While it’s easy to picture Cueto as a care free, ball-pit-loving master of aloofness, there’s absolutely no way that he’s fine with how last season transpired. There were blisters and there was elbow weirdness, but most of all, there was ineffectiveness for the first time since 2009. Two thousand and nine! The last time Cueto was ineffective for an entire season, I had one kid! And golden hair! People were playing PlayStation 3, like a bunch of cavemen!

He’s the 2018 Giants, the living embodiment of this-guy-should-be-betterism, which is the philosophy that’s responsible for the entire organizational blueprint. Cueto should be better. Bumgarner should be better. Samardzija should be better. Crawford should be better. Belt should be better. Melancon should be better. Pence should be better. The entire outfield should be better. The whole team should be better. But, let’s not forget, that Cueto should be better, if only because HE’S BEEN EXCELLENT FOR YEARS. It’s so, so hard to remember this.

This has all been an exercise in getting you excited about Cueto, but I should probably mention one thing: He’s 32 and coming off his worst season since his rookie year. He doesn’t exactly look like Ned Flanders with his shirt off. Giants fans are very familiar with excellent pitchers who have a bad season and never return to form. This doesn’t have to be a feel-good story.

I’ve checked with my legal team, though, and I’ve confirmed that this is absolutely, 100 percent guaranteed to be a feel-good story. Baseball is better with Cueto being a shimmying wonder. Therefore, that’s what he’ll be. QED.

Johnny Cueto, 2018 projection
IP: 189
ERA: 3.43
BB: 39
K: 178
HR: 25
rWAR: 4.4

When he pitches, the Giants will win more games than they lose. If they make the postseason, he’ll be pitching in some of the most important games. I don’t know what the contract will look like in 2021. Probably not good. But for this year, he’ll be the asset he was always supposed to be.