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Community Projection: Johnny Cueto

It’s time to prognosticate so that you can showoff to your friends later this year.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report, officially kicking off the next phase of the Giants’ interminable rebuild. Before we go lamenting the lean season ahead, though, let’s break the seal on our beloved community projections, our chance to really explore the space of our baseball fandom.

And since pitchers will be tomorrow’s headliners, let’s start with one of the most prominent arms on staff. Our dear friend Johnny Cueto. Just last week, Brady pointed to the former Cy Young vote-getter as being the most important Giant this season.

Cueto is one of the few Giants who, when playing well, you can’t take your eyes off of.

I agree! We’re in a post-Bumgarner world, and if we can’t get a slutter with seven shutout innings, then I’ll take a five-and-dive with a shimmy-shake.

No, a five inning start doesn’t really jolt the nervous system, but in a post-success world, if I’m about to spend 60% of the season watching my favorite team get embarrassed for three and a half hours, I’d like there to be the occasionally flash of “not too bad” in there.

Johnny Cueto is fully healthy well over a year after Tommy John surgery, and the Giants expect him to be pitching at full strength at the close of spring training. But just what does full strength look like for him at this point? Cueto turns 34 in five days and his last fully healthy season was in 2016.

The game has changed a lot since then, to say nothing of his probably arm health. As much as he’s limited walks in his career, he hasn’t managed to strike out too many (7.5 K/9). Still, despite his struggles (first with blisters in 2017 and then elbow troubles in 2018 leading to a 4-start 2019), he’s been basically league average (98 ERA+) over the past three seasons. With improved health, maybe competent averageishness can be his floor this year.

Make no mistake: Gabe Kapler did not spend Fan Fest talking about Johnny Cueto being “the ace”. He clearly said “the aise.” As in, the mayonnaise slathered on the Giants’ pitching staff to trick undiscriminating taste buds into thinking it has some flavor. ZiPS gives Cueto a 1-win projection — though it adjusts up to 1.7 when combined with a playing time variable and in that case, that puts him very close to what he’s been the past three seasons: league average.

He was incredible in his first two starts last September (10 IP 0.00 ERA 4 H, 6 K, 3 BB), but they were against the Pirates (69-93) and Marlins (57-105). In his next two starts, against the Braves (97-65) and Dodgers (106-56), he was not competitive: 6 IP 13.50 ERA 7 H, 7 K, 6 BB.

Still, his fastball velocity averaged 91.3 mph (it had been 89.8 in 2018), exactly where it had been in 2017; and, his pitch spin rates were all back to their 2017 levels. He wasn’t very good in 2017, but if you remember, he started off 2018 like a Cy Young contender: 32 IP 0.84 ERA 16 H, 26 K, 6 BB.

His skill set is such that he doesn’t need velocity to be effective, and he’s already demonstrated the ability to ditch his sinker and stick with fastball-slider-changeup. If he can keep adapting and if he can regain his command, then maybe he can surprise the projection systems.

We’ve also been waiting nearly two years for these Johnny Cueto infinite hats . . .

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If you guys like these you may be real happy soon

A post shared by Johnny Cueto (@johnnycueto47) on

So, selfishly, I’d like it if he reestablished himself as an above average starting pitcher so these could finally come to market. Then again, I don’t think my projection would go so far as to push him back to that level.

Johnny Cueto
IP: 147
ERA: 4.35
K: 114
BB: 44
HR: 24

I’m assuming some combination of the Giants playing in a tough division, the slightly tweaked Oracle Park dimensions, and the uncertainty surrounding the ball will contribute to this home run total, but otherwise, I see a decline in strikeouts just because I’m skeptical of the Giants’ team-wide ability to strike out anybody.

In the first three months of the season, they play just 25 games against teams most people figure will be bad, and 10 of those are against the Rockies, who are never quite so bad that they can’t beat the Giants. The other teams are the Pirates (7), Marlins (6), and Tigers (2).

We skipped Cueto in last year’s community projections because of Tommy John, but if we go back to his 2018 projection, Grant left this ominous note:

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.

I’m kicking off community projection season with a warning: the Giants have not done well in the standings, but they’ve done very well in disappointing us. Maybe Cueto can be the bright light in another dark season, but why count on it?

Edited to add:

The very first comment on this post by blank (thanks, blank!) mentions the possibility of an in-season trade, should Cueto actually show flashes of his old self. He’s owed $21,833,334 in each of the next two seasons with a $22 million option for 2022 (or $5 million buyout). Five years ago, several teams might’ve taken on that whole amount if he pitched like an All-Star, but even after the success of unloading Mark Melancon’s deal, I don’t foresee any team taking on $37.75 million (or $32.75 million, if the Giants agree to pay the full buyout) for a year and a half of Johnny Cueto.

Still, if you’re making a projection, including one last field:

Johnny Cueto