When Giants pitchers walked from the clubhouse to the main field at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday and started playing catch for the first time, Johnny Cueto held an unexpected designation. Cueto stands alone as the longest-tenured pitcher on the staff, having watched Madison Bumgarner depart last offseason and Jeff Samardzija at the end of the 2020 season.
The 35-year-old has watched a new front office and manager take over and is on his third Giants pitching coach. He also has watched a new philosophy wash over the organization, one that contrasts the main reason Cueto became a Giant in the first place.
The 2015 Giants had just two pitchers throw more than 135 innings, and a rotation that included three right-handers who were 34 or older. They went into that offseason desperate for innings-eaters and spent $220 million on Cueto and Samardzija.
Those days of looking at innings counts are long gone. Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris and Gabe Kapler care only about the quality of innings they get from their starters, knowing they can cover the gaps with relievers or swingmen. That's the way the game is going just about across the league, but it can still be a difficult adjustment for veterans. Asked Thursday what the issue was in 2020, when he had the worst ERA among qualified National League starters, Cueto talked about his desire to be more of a workhorse.
"I wanted to pitch longer," he said through interpreter Erwin Higueros. "I wanted to throw more pitches, but the coaches and manager were taking care of me."
That was never a secret last season. After Kapler's first game in charge, Cueto admitted he was stunned to be pulled after 63 pitches. "In my 12 years in baseball it's the first time I'm seeing this," he said at the time.
Kapler and Cueto spoke after that opening day start and the manager made it a point to ask for more information from the right-hander over the rest of the season, often turning mound visits into a conversation. Cueto ended up throwing 100-plus pitches in six of his final eight starts, and it sounds like the two remain on the same page.
"Every starting pitcher, every good starting pitcher, wants to pitch as deep into games as much as they can," Kapler said Wednesday. "Johnny's competitiveness is completely refreshing."
That trait carried into the offseason, as Cueto attempted to play winter ball back home in the Dominican Republic. The Giants shut that down, preferring instead that the right-hander rest his arm for what will be a big spring and summer for both sides. Cueto's six-year $130 million contract ends after this season, and to set himself up for another guaranteed shot in a rotation, he'll need to improve on last year's numbers.
In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, Cueto had a career-high 5.40 ERA, although there was maybe some bad luck there as his FIP was 4.64. He walked a career-high 3.7 batters per nine and ranked in the bottom third of big league pitchers in strikeout rate. Kapler said there were reasons for the decline.
"I don't know that Johnny was ever the healthiest version of himself and I think one more year away from his surgery is going to give him the opportunity to be that healthy version of himself," Kapler said. "When he was at his healthiest and strongest, that's when we saw the best velocity on his fastball."
Cueto has never blown hitters away as a Giant, and his 91.3 mph average on fastballs was right in line with his pre-surgery numbers. But the Giants do expect to see a change with a different pitch this season. Kapler said the staff wants Cueto to use his changeup even more often. Cueto threw it a career-high 27 percent of the time in 2020, holding opposing hitters to a .125 average and .225 slugging percentage.
"We think that can be a dominant pitch to both righties and lefties," Kapler said.
Cueto will get every opportunity to prove it. He's no longer in line to start Opening Day, but given the question marks elsewhere in the rotation, the Giants will lean on Cueto as much as they can. If he pitches well he'll get those innings he seeks, and it sounds like he's ready for it.
"I'm stronger," he said. "I think it's going to be a great season for me."