Johnny Cueto remains on MLB Opening Day track with help from ex-Giant

Johnny Cueto remains on MLB Opening Day track with help from ex-Giant

On the fourth day of camp, the Giants put their new Zoom setup to the test. Johnny Cueto sat in front of a camera in the club's new interview room and interpreter Erwin Higueros set up in a nearby conference room where he could pass along reporters' questions to Cueto and then translate his answers. 

But there was no help necessary when Cueto was asked who won his spirited live BP sessions with former Giant Eduardo Nuñez in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks. Cueto answered in English before Higueros could start talking.

"Me," he said loudly, laughing softly.

Cueto went on to explain how Nuñez, a popular Giant who played 126 games for the Giants in Cueto's first two years, became one of his best training partners as he tried to stay ready.

"He would call me and say get ready to pitch to me on Wednesday," Cueto said through Higueros. "I would tell him, you come ready, because I will strike you out. Obviously you can see from the video that he didn't make contact. That contact that he made was just foul balls. I killed him."

Cueto posted four videos of the matchups to his Instagram page, including one that took good-natured jabs at Nuñez's interpretation of the strike zone:

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

As fun as those matchups with Nuñez, now in camp with the Mets, were, they also were important. The last thing Gabe Kapler did before breaking camp was name Cueto his Opening Day starter, and he remains on track to take the ball months later. Cueto said he's ready to do whatever the staff asks of him.

When the sport was shut down in March, Cueto flew back to his home in the Dominican Republic, where he had to self-quarantine for 14 days per the country's rules. He spent most of the next three months at home, saying he didn't want to leave the house because he was fearful of getting COVID-19 and transmitting it to his family. Early on in the Dominican Republic there was a strict curfew of 5 p.m. It later got moved back two hours. 

[RELATED: Joey Bart, three other Giants are intriguing Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow]

"It's a very difficult situation, and I'm scared for my family just like everyone else is," he said.

Cueto flew to San Francisco on a private jet last week and passed the initial intake screening. He has been part of every workout at Oracle Park, and he said he doesn't have concerns that would cause him to opt out at this point. 

"I'm already here. I made the commitment," he said. "I flew from the Dominican, which is pretty far away. I'm already here and I'm going to give it my all and see what happens, and whatever decision baseball makes I'm going to accept it."

How Giants are developing players in Sacramento with no minor leagues

How Giants are developing players in Sacramento with no minor leagues

Kyle Haines has been dealt nearly an impossible hand. The Giants' director of player development has to advance the game of top prospects like Joey Bart, Marco Luciano, Patrick Bailey and Heliot Ramos, while also making sure more veteran players like Yolmer Sanchez, Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Triggs are ready to join the big league club in San Francisco. 

This all is happening at the same alternate site in Sacramento, Sutter Health Park, with the minor league season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Haines is leading the operation with a long list of others helping him as well. The goal is to make this as much of a game-like environment. The reality is, that's not very easy or realistic. There simply aren't enough players, especially pitchers, to form two teams for a full intrasquad game. 

"The best way to describe it, I think, is a glorified workout," Haines said last week in a phone interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.

To make the day-to-day feel as much like a game as possible, the staff simply forms a defense and a certain pitcher will throw to two, three or four batters. There's no traditional lineup. What the Giants will do is create impromptu situations like a real game for the hitter, pitcher and defense. 

What Haines has learned early on is the numbers game isn't the biggest obstacle. 

"Honestly, the big thing is just trying to keep morale up," Haines said. "It’s not an ideal environment on and off the field to play baseball. It’s not ideal and we’re trying our best. Everyone’s done great so far."

The Giants are doing their best to keep a loose, focused environment on the field. Off it, they want their players and staff to be as safe as possible in Sacramento. Players like Bart and Luciano are tested just as often as Mike Yastrzemski and Brandon Crawford. Perhaps just as important, the team has kept players as close to the park as possible, with as little travel as possible outside of that as well. 

If players already live locally in the area, they will continue to do so. But what about those who don't? The franchise took care of housing near the stadium and has made it clear how important safety measures are. 

In essence, they have a bit of their own bubble in Sacramento. 

"Basically our only interaction is together pretty much all day," Haines said. "I know there’s a lot of people thinking we’re being reckless. Personally, I feel as safe with this group of people and the amount of testing that Major League Baseball is doing -- I feel that these kids and myself are much safer here than being at home going into the grocery store and living their normal lives.

"I don't think we’re at any more risk. We’re definitely being extremely careful."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

When players do go through simulated innings and mini scrimmages, there's no way for you or I to see their stats. There's no Baseball Reference for these "games." That doesn't mean the Giants aren't tracking stats, though. 

They're tracking everything, and sharing everything with their players. Whether it be exit velocity for a hitter or the velocity on a pitcher's fastball, they want their players, veteran or prospect, to know what they're tracking and evaluating. That creates some pride for players, and certainly helps the game environment. 

Ultimately, though, Haines doesn't want his players to get caught up in the numbers. What should be more important right now is the process. 

"Honestly, we want to make sure we could turn this into a good situation where they’re not worried about their stats going online," Haines said. "They’re just worried about the process. That’s one way we want these guys to look at it. We want you to make progress in your own development, not in the eyes of Baseball Reference.

"Let’s be real, stats can be very misleading."

While top prospects like Bart and Luciano are advancing their games in Sacramento right now, that isn't true for a large number of players. Haines tries to call players who aren't at the alternate site as much as he can, but has relied heavily on his staff for that. This is hard enough with a large staff. If it were a one-man show, Haines would be glued to his phone calling 200-plus minor leaguers all the time.

Instead, a staff member will check in with about 10 or 15 guys throughout the week and report back to people like Haines. He praised the Giants' medical staff, strength and conditioning staff, hitting and pitching coaches and minor league managers for their collaboration.

There also is a large number of players who don't have the benefit of using the same technology or facilities as what is being utilized in Sacramento. The Giants did send equipment to a group of prospects, and Haines said a lot workout at training facilities that are able to give them the kind of data the Giants are tracking. But that's not true for everyone.

"For the most part, these poor kids, I just feel for them," Haines said. "They're basically just in the offseason again."

There's strategy and reason behind everything the Giants are doing. That's also true for who they chose to come to Sacramento. When looking at that list, it's full of top position player prospects like Bart, Luciano, Bailey and Ramos, as well as Alexander Canario, Luis Toribio and Will Wilson. There's something missing there, though. 

Pitching prospects like Seth Corry and Sean Hjelle aren't in Sacramento right now. Don't get it twisted. The Giants still have high hopes for these two, along with other pitching prospects, too. This isn't about picking favorites. 

The simple fact is, pitchers have the benefit of developing through bullpens, tracking their velocity and spin rate with systems like Rapsodo. Haines recently talked with Hjelle and said the 6-foot-11 right-hander is game-ready right now. The same can't be true for a young hitter without live at-bats.

[RELATED: Giants prospects Bailey, Bart learning to play first in Sac]

"The key right now is these young position players can’t miss a year worth of at-bats, where as pitchers we can simulate innings much easier than we can simulate at-bats," Haines said. "That's definitely part of the thought process."

It's not perfect. It's not ideal. The Giants are balancing the present and the future all at one field, at the same time. They have to be focused and keep it loose, with safety as the top priority. 

There's a lot to juggle right now for Haines and his staff, and they certainly seem up to the tall task to push the Giants' exciting young farm system.

MLB power rankings: Where all 30 teams stand 11 days into 2020 season

MLB power rankings: Where all 30 teams stand 11 days into 2020 season

Major League Baseball made it through the first full week of the season. Barely.

There were more than 30 games postponed last week because of positive COVID-19 tests, and four games were postponed Sunday alone.

For now, MLB marches on, with players being told to more strictly stick to the health and safety protocols and the commissioner threatening to shut this all down if he doesn't see improvement.

So, check back in a week. But for now, on they go, so we go on with their power rankings.

Here's where they stand after a strange week and a half ...

View MLB Power Rankings here