Cueto’s tumultuous season closes, contract discussions open

About 15 months ago, the Giants were playing good baseball.

Since then, things have gone south. To say the least. The details of this long and winding collapse from grace have been hammered home relentlessly, but the biggest question still brews and, at times, can be answered in parts: What changed?

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park.

The answer is multi-pronged, of course, with essentially every player that exceeded expectations a year ago embarking on a sudden, simultaneous decline. But Johnny Cueto’s rough season signals one of the biggest discrepancies between this year and the first half of the last.

Cueto gave up four consecutive hits, including two doubles and, somehow, just two runs to kick off Game 162. It seemed every ball the Padres put in play fell for a hit, which tallied up to four runs on 12 hits by the time Cueto departed the fifth. It was the most hits he’d allow in a 5-inning start, but it was enough to keep his team balancing on edge, said Bruce Bochy:

“The outing he had sort of summed up Johnny’s season. … He finds a way to get us deep enough into a game.”

He did enough to help the Giants to an eventual 5-4 victory won on a Pablo Sandoval walk-off home run. It was the Giants’ 64th win, keeping them at a cool 98 losses — Imagine reading that back in April, it’s been a trip.

Cueto wasn’t satisfied with his start, a final one that gave him a 4.52 ERA and capped his 147-inning season — under 200 for the first time since an injury-plagued 2013 season. he finished with 136 strikeouts and 1.414 WHIP.

Those numbers don’t mean much, though. Cueto works best when he’s in his flow, shimmying and shaking. The Giants saw Cueto’s best when he found his rhythm from day one of the 2016 season, a rhythm he rode to the tune of a 2.47 ERA and a nod as the National League’s starter in the 2016 All-Star game.

Cueto’s 2017 season began a little differently and the consequences rippled throughout the year.

He had to push spring training preparation back a few weeks while he attended to his ill father; raised seams on the baseballs gave Cueto blisters that he couldn’t fight through; once healed, he found himself pitching through the disabled list again with a forearm injury.

From a team perspective, the rotation struggles seem simple. Cueto fluctuating from the mound to the DL, compounded with Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike accident, dimmed the Giants’ season outlook nearly out the gate. In the first half of 2016, their one-two punch, two-ace set up was essential to the team’s success.

Let’s use the ‘Padres scale’ to measure Cueto’s season.

Cueto only got a shot at them twice before the season finale — once in April with a 7-inning, two-run outing, and then again in a 4-inning start as his forearm injury flared up. The Padres rocked him for 23 hits and nine runs this year.

Cueto pitched three complete games against the Padres in the first half of 2016, two were shutouts.

It’s important to consider Cueto’s ceiling — how he is at his best — heading into the offseason. A paticularly rough season in keeping with the team’s struggles made it even more likely that Cueto will opt into the remainder of a six-year, $130 million contract. Should he opt-in, the Giants owe him $84 million over the next four years.

Perhaps with a complete season devoid of weird, rhythm-altering injuries and family illness, Cueto can return to his first-half-2016 form. The form he rode to an 8-inning, one-run outing in Game 1 against the Cubs in last season’s the NLDS — albeit in a losing effort.

Cueto’s bounced back from injury before. He put together an All-Star, Cy Young-caliber 2014 following that injury-riddled 2013. With a relatively thin pitching free agent pool and Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez still simmering in the minor league wings, it seems the Giants’ best option would be to hope Cueto returns — and in 2016 form.

It could take something as simple as that, as Bochy would say, to ‘turn this thing around.’

Bochy indicated a few weeks ago that he thought Cueto liked playing in San Francisco and expected him back next season. Cueto gave some tongue-in-cheek follow-up answers to the question:

“I don’t know, maybe, I mean, I’m sure I will.”

Cueto went on to say that his future would be up to the front office and his agent, which might indicate he expects some push and pull on both ends. Eventually he gave the same answer Pablo Sandoval had when asked if he wanted to be here:

“Of course I would like to come back. I feel like we have a winning team. … I would like to stay and finish my career in San Francisco.”

Other question marks swirled around the clubhouse after game 162. Nick Hundley, who’s one-year contract is up, said he would do what’s best for his family, adding that he loved playing for this team and in San Francisco.

Sandoval is almost certainly going to be a Giant next year — the Red Sox are paying him to do so — but the question heading into Spring will be whether or not he’ll return to full form as the Giants’ starting third baseman.

San Francisco should get Hundley back and seriously consider third base as a clean slate for 2018, but the bigger decisions will rotate around players that weren’t in the room. Bochy essentially told the fans he wanted to see big offseason moves:

“We promise we will be relentless in our quest to turn things around for the 2018 season”

The 2017 season is finally over. For the Giants, the real games will come in the next few months.


Shayna Rubin is SFBay’s San Francisco Giants beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShaynaRubin on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Giants baseball.