MLB

What Johnny Cueto deal means for Giants and NL West

Some guy on Twitter named @Longball8 replied to my tongue-in-cheek prediction during the 49ers game that Johnny Manziel would compete with Blaine Gabbert for the starting job next year with “glad you’re saying it…cuz you’re always wrong.”

Easy, there! Not cool, breh, and not at all true. Actually, well … (dammit)

One thing we know is this means they are not signing Johnny Cueto. In fact, adding Samardzija (who reportedly preferred San Francisco over Los Angeles or St. Louis) effectively pushes Cueto to the Dodgers’ side of the table. “Here, you have him. Enjoy!” And it’s not hard to figure out why. The Giants trust certain numbers, but they also trust their eyes. Samardzija, despite giving up a few runs at AT&T in that start referenced earlier, looked incredible. The Giants surely remember Game 1 of the NLDS, when Cueto left after recording one out due to an oblique strain.

Funny thing about that bit of nonsense I wrote. It turned out to be completely false! The Dodgers lost Zack Greinke and still haven’t announced the Hisashi Iwakuma signing that was leaked 10 days ago, and today the Giants shocked a lot of people — perhaps me most of all — when they signed Cueto to a six-year, $130 million contract with an opt-out after 2017 and a seventh-year club option. Cueto will make $46 million combined in 2016-17.

Why was this so surprising?

The Giants are kind of doing this backwards. They signed Jeff Samardzija, widely thought of as a free agent sitting a tier below Cueto (or maybe a half-tier, if such a thing exists), to a $90 million deal. Usually it seems like teams do the big spending first, then fill in with lesser signings to finish out their offseason.

It also seemed like the Giants couldn’t be expected to go over nine figures for one player, at least not after losing out on Greinke. They reportedly went higher than that on their offer to Jon Lester, but the Samardzija signing made it appear as if the Giants would maybe add a pitcher like Mike Leake or Wei-Yin Chen, or an outfielder like Alex Gordon or Dexter Fowler. Or maybe even both. But probably not both.

What about an outfielder?

Other than Giants fans and the season ticket-holders who were certain that the Giants wouldn’t make a nine-figure signing (many of these people probably would’ve preferred Greinke, but nobody prefers Leake over Cueto), signing Cueto should make Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson happier than just about everybody.

One would have to assume the Giants will add another outfielder, but the AAV of Cueto + Samardzija equals just under $40 million, which means the Giants probably don’t have much more than $10 million of wiggle room below the luxury tax. Maybe they’ll still sign a free agent outfielder, but even Gerardo Parra would be too expensive for them now if cruising past that tax threshold is forbidden. They still have to fill out a roster, and calling up guys from the minors during the season increases their overall tax number incrementally.

So we’re probably thinking more along the lines of Chris Denorfia, Rajai Davis, Will Venable, or even Marlon Byrd if he doesn’t get much interest over the next few weeks. And that’s if they sign anybody at all. They could always roll into next season with Parker and Williamson as the plan, with the option to add an outfielder during the season if needed. That’s why the Giants won’t want to edge right up against that cap number — they prize flexibility. That’s partly what allowed them to sign Cueto yesterday.

Why not Greinke?

I’ve been told that the Giants did not want to give Greinke a sixth year. Cueto is 28 months younger than Greinke, who has pitched 2,094.2 regular season innings in his career compared to 1,420.1 for Cueto. Greinke had a lubricating injection in his elbow last Spring, but there are no long-term health concerns for a pitcher several have compared to Greg Maddux. Cueto had an MRI on his elbow in May that revealed no structural damage, although he did miss a start at the time. Cueto also missed a lot of time in 2013 with non-arm ailments.

If making the most money was Greinke’s goal, and having the highest average annual value was a priority, perhaps the Giants decided investing over $200 million in one player wasn’t something they were willing to do. Samardzija had the opposite of a good contract year in 2015. Cueto had six very good starts (including the postseason) after getting dealt to Kansas City, but he also had five bad starts in a row during the regular season, along with one mediocre start and one disastrous start in October for the Royals. But if you asked the Giants after the 2014 season if they’d have a chance to afford both Samardzija and Cueto in late-2015, they would’ve laughed and said no way.

Greinke is seen as more of a sure thing, even at age 32. But the Giants decided to go with two pitchers who could give them 200 dominant innings next year and in years to come. We’ll see if they got two ace-type pitchers for about $20 million more than what Greinke got, or if they should’ve said “screw depth” and gone all-in for the top right-handed starter on the market.

Why Cueto?

There are so many obvious reasons, I’m starting to feel even dumber as I write this post.

  • The Giants weren’t going to go into another season with a rotation with Madison Bumgarner and a bunch of No. 4/5 starters.
  • Next year’s class of free agent starting pitchers is beyond terrible.
  • Cueto has finished in the top-four in NL Cy Young voting twice since 2012.
  • Cueto was traded during the 2015 season so there’s no qualifying offer attached.
  • If the Giants liked Leake that much, they probably would’ve re-signed him weeks ago.
  • As Andrew Baggarly noted, the Giants’ system isn’t producing the next Bumgarner anytime soon.
  • Signing Cueto means the Dodgers’ No. 2 starter is guaranteed to be much weaker than Greinke (barring a trade for Sonny Gray or some other ace).

This couldn’t go much better for the Giants. It would’ve been nice to either sign Greinke for themselves, or for some team in the American League to sign Greinke away from their division, but the Dodgers’ rotation is weakened while the Giants’ rotation is much stronger than it was last year.

Giants’ rotation

  1. Madison Bumgarner
  2. Johnny Cueto
  3. Jeff Samardzija
  4. Jake Peavy
  5. Matt Cain

Dodgers’ rotation

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Alex Wood
  3. Brett Anderson

Cain is a question mark for obvious reasons, and today’s news emphatically answered the question I posed on Friday. The Giants seem to believe they’ll get something from Angel Pagan. It might not be good, but the Giants can find ways to overcome some frustrating outfield defense paired with a weak bat, or replace Pagan if he goes on the disabled list. If Cain is hurt or awful, you can’t use him at all and suddenly the long reliever is the fifth starter. And that’s after signing Cueto. That’s partly why the Giants signed two starting pitchers before addressing their outfield needs.

The Dodgers may add Iwakuma one of these days. They’re hoping Hyun-Jin Ryu will recover from surgery to repair a torn labrum in time for Opening Day, but that’s no sure thing. Brandon McCarthy could come back from Tommy John surgery as strong as before, but that wouldn’t be until June at the earliest. Mike Bolsinger is the Dodgers’ version of Chris Heston.

The one area where the Dodgers have the edge is in the minors, as Julio Urias (MLB.com’s No. 4 prospect) and Jose De Leon (No. 23) are still in the organization. The Giants have young arms that they might be interested in dealing for an outfielder, but they don’t have a single player on that top-100 prospects list.

The Rockies and Padres don’t matter until further notice, but it’s interesting that the Giants added two starters in the same offseason that the D-Backs signed Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller. With Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, Robbie Ray and Chase Anderson, Arizona’s rotation may be more formidable than San Francisco’s. Or not. Who knows.

But unless the Dodgers do some wild stuff over the next few weeks, or Dave Roberts proves to be a much better manager than Don Mattingly, or Yasiel Puig goes back to being the same player he was a couple years ago, or a guy like Urias bursts onto the scene and becomes Kershaw’s next running mate, it seems unlikely that Los Angeles will run away with the division for the fourth straight year.

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