SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants would not admit it, but there was an important reason to get Johnny Cueto back on the mound Sunday, three days after he was scratched with an ear infection. If Bobby Evans is to include Cueto’s name in trade talks over the next three weeks, the right-hander needs to prove he’s healthy and on his game.
In that respect, the final game of the first half was a disaster.
Cueto walked six and left with the bases loaded in the seventh inning. He was charged with six runs in a 10-8 extra-innings loss to the Marlins.
Cueto finished the first half with a 4.51 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. A year ago those numbers were 2.47 and 0.99, earning him an All-Star start. His home run rate is more than double what it was a year ago and his walk rate is up by a point. His velocity is down on all of his pitches. What’s the difference from 2016?
“I really don’t know,” Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. “I guess the difference is I lost spring training. It was very difficult for me to have done that but at the same time I’m glad I was able to miss spring training because my father is alive.”
Cueto spent much of February and March tending to his father, who fell ill in the Dominican Republic. But he said he doesn’t want to use the late start as an excuse, and really, in July, it can’t be one. Cueto’s start Sunday was one of his worst of the year and he’s far removed from his spring delay.
He is no longer far from the deadline, though. Cueto’s future has been a subject of speculation all season, but he said that’s not weighing on him.
“I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “What I think is that I want to stay here, but if they decide (something else) that’s their decision.”
The questions have flipped after a poor first half. It is no longer, “Would the Giants trade Cueto?” and “Will he opt out?” Now, team officials are wondering, “Can we even trade him?” and “Would he even want to opt out after the way this season has gone?”
Scouts have descended on AT&T Park in recent weeks. Many have come away with the impression that Cueto is not throwing well enough to make him tradable given the complications of his contract. He can walk away from any new team at the end of the season, but if he gets hurt that team would be on the hook for the remaining $84 million on his deal. It’s a risk, and it’s hard to find the team that would take it on before the July 31 deadline.
You can pretty safely assume that the Giants will not trade such a popular player within the division, which doesn’t leave many options in the National League. The Nationals? Loaded with starting pitching and in need of relievers. The Brewers? It seems impossible that they could take the risk of getting stuck with Cueto’s money, but the NL Central might be the best bet. The Cubs desperately need starting pitching and can swallow any sort of contract, but they can probably do better given their stock of top prospects.
Down the line, Cueto would like to pitch in the American League again. While there are plenty of teams in contention there, it’s hard to find many that could risk getting stuck with the $84 million. The Red Sox, Yankees and Astros certainly could, but there aren’t many others looking for top-of-the-rotation types, so those teams will have the luxury of sitting back and waiting to see how many aces are dangled. Even then, the Red Sox have spent a ton on pitching as is and the Yankees hope to one day soon get back under the tax.
Team president and CEO Larry Baer was in Bruce Bochy’s office after the sweep by the Marlins and others in the front office have been in meetings for weeks. Perhaps the Giants, kings of marketing their players and ballpark, have found a creative way to sell Cueto’s first half. Perhaps they have already decided to hold onto him and try to convince him to stay long-term.
No matter what happens, Cueto is assured of starting Friday in San Diego. He’ll try to wash off a first half that matched the team’s.
“He hasn’t quite been himself for the most part,” Bochy said.
That goes for all of them.