DENVER -- At some point in the next 15 days, the Giants will have to decide whether they want to trade their ace at a time when they're back within striking distance of a playoff spot. No matter what they decide, the rotation will get a nice boost down the stretch. 

Johnny Cueto will pitch in a rookie league game in Arizona the first week of August, manager Bruce Bochy said, taking a huge step in his return from Tommy John surgery. That will be Cueto's first rehab appearance and will put him just a few weeks from a return to San Francisco. 

The Giants and Cueto have always viewed Sept. 1 as a target date and he has had no setbacks during the long and tedious recovery process. For a while, it seemed Cueto's return would simply be to give everyone peace of mind before the 2020 season. But now Cueto may be coming back to a team that finds itself within shouting distance of a playoff spot, and he's said to be keeping an eye on the surging big league roster. 

It would be unrealistic to expect Cueto to be his old self in September, and he would face pitch count restrictions upon his return. At the same time, the right-hander somehow had a 0.84 ERA in his first five starts last season as he battled elbow pain, so perhaps he really could come back and contribute right away. 


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Cueto hasn't pitched in a big league game since last July 28. During the time away he has dropped more than 20 pounds, and team officials have been thrilled about his command and stuff in bullpen sessions.