Going into the offseason, the Giants' starting rotation was a mess outside of ace Madison Bumgarner. Their other starters included Chris Heston, Jake Peavy, and Matt Cain, who each had their fair share of issues in 2015. Heston was one of the constants in the Giants' rotation, pitching 177 2/3 innings over 31 starts in 2015. Unfortunately, his run prevention in those starts left something to be desired, as he posted a mediocre 4.02 FIP and was worth just 1.3 fWAR despite his high quantity of innings. Peavy and Cain missed significant time with injuries, and even when they were healthy, their 2015 performance did not exactly resemble their career norms.
To fix their rotation, the Giants signed two more pitchers whose 2015 performance did not line up with their career norms. A couple weeks ago, the Giants gave Jeff Samardzija a five-year, $90 million dollar contract, and Monday night, they signed Johnny Cueto to a six-year, $130 million dollar contract. Cueto's contract reportedly includes an opt-out after two years as well as a club option for a seventh season.
Let's start with the obvious. Cueto was seen by many as the third-best free agent starter available this offseason, and he certainly qualifies as an upgrade for the Giants. Cueto has been an elite pitcher at times during his career, as he finished second in Cy Young voting in 2014 after posting a 2.25 ERA in 243 2/3 innings. As Eno Sarris recently pointed out, Cueto has consistently outperformed his fielding independent numbers throughout his career, and he appears to have some of the skills needed to continue beating his peripherals. If we project his future WAR based on ERA instead of FIP, then he seems to have a good chance of significantly outperforming his contract over the next six years.
What makes this signing such a risk, though, is the fact that Cueto struggled in 2015, especially after he was traded to the Royals.
Cueto's ERA with the Royals was nearly double what it was with the Reds, in large part due to an alarmingly low 16.0 percent strikeout rate, which was more than seven percentage points lower than his pre-trade strikeout rate. The fact that Cueto actually underperformed his peripherals with the Royals should also be concerning. It could simply be a small sample size issue, but it seems odd that Cueto would stop outperforming his peripherals in front of the best defense in baseball while pitching his home games in a ballpark known for suppressing home runs.
If we dig a little deeper, we can see that hitters swung less, made more contact, and saw fewer pitches in the strike zone while facing Cueto after he was traded.
Some suggested that Cueto's struggles with the Royals had something to do with the target set by his catcher Salvador Perez. Usually, I tend to be skeptical about these kinds of narratives, and I have not been able to find anything in Cueto's numbers that suggests he improved in any meaningful way after Perez's adjustment. In fact, the plate discipline numbers cited above were even worse for Cueto after Perez's adjustment, which reportedly took place starting with Cueto's start on September 18.
Hitters were even more patient against Cueto after this adjustment, and they saw a smaller percent of pitches in the zone, including on first pitches. This trend is concerning, to say the least. Perhaps the Giants know something that gives them confidence that Cueto can return to being the pitcher he was in his time with the Reds. However, given Cueto's injury history, which included an elbow scare earlier this season, one has to wonder if he was completely healthy in his time with the Royals.
If Cueto is healthy and pitches close to his projections, then this deal will work out fine for the Giants. However, the upside of this deal for the Giants is limited by the fact that Cueto can opt out after the 2017 season. Even so, this signing fits well with the Giants' current competitive window. According to FanGraphs depth charts, the Giants as a team are now at 38.5 WAR, less than two wins behind the Cardinals, who currently project as the second wild card team. The Giants will likely be in the hunt for a wild card spot in 2016, and every extra win they can get in free agency now could have a huge impact on their playoff odds. Barring a major injury, Johnny Cueto will likely be a key contributor for the Giants as they attempt to win their fourth straight even-year World Series.
* * *