Johnny Cueto and Pablo Sandoval joined the ranks of the benched Monday, as the Giants transferred both players to the 10-day disabled list ahead of a series opener with the Padres; Cueto for a right elbow sprain, and Sandoval for a right hamstring strain.
Sandoval’s hamstring injury came on a play at the plate in the series finale against the Brewers Sunday. Joe Panik was reactivated from the disabled list (left groin) and Kelby Tomlinson was recalled from Sacramento to fill out the roster.
Cueto (3-2, 3.23 ERA), who has battled elbow discomfort since Spring Training, started out the 2018 season looking like one of the best pitchers in the league with a 0.84 ERA, allowing just three runs on 16 hits over five starts. In that time, opponents were batting .150 against the shimmying righty.
The first inkling of an issue came when Cueto was shelved May 1 with what was called ‘right elbow inflammation.’ The Giants’ initial medical opinion suggested Cueto would need season-ending Tommy John surgery, but a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews allowed that, with some rest and rehab, Cueto could postpone the nuclear option and finish out the season.
Following that advice, Cueto missed 61 games before throwing two rehab games in Triple-A and returning to the Giants rotation July 5. But since, in four starts, Cueto has looked nearly unrecognizable with a 6.86 ERA. In 21 innings pitched he’s allowed 16 runs on 30 hits, including seven home runs, and opponents are teeing off on him at a .349 clip.
His most recent start Saturday against Milwaukee presented the most startling evidence yet that Cueto wasn’t right. Beyond the offensive numbers against him (four runs on eight hits) his velocity appeared to have fallen off a cliff, topping 90 mph on just one of 61 pitches over four innings.
In the wake of the disappointing outing, manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged the team was worried for Cueto:
“I gotta be honest: Sure there’s concern there for Johnny we know how good he is and he’s just not quite there.”
Cueto for his part was deeply troubled, admitting he felt pain in his elbow during Spring Training, and it’s the same pain he feels now with every pitch:
“I feel really bad. I surely wanna try and help the team, I wanna go out there like a warrior and give my best. But I keep telling you guys and I keep telling myself that I’m fine, but in reality I’m not. And I just feel sad that I can’t help, and its very difficult every time I go out there.”
Cueto’s May injury came not long after injuries to Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, knocking out the Giants’ three top starters in what felt like one fell swoop. Bumgarner and Samardzija’s injuries came right out of spring — Bumgarner fractured his left hand in his last Spring Training start, and Samardzija sustained a right pectoral strain at the tail end of camp.
The Giants hoped that by the All Star Break or sooner they’d have all three anchors back in place. Though Bumgarner’s successful June return was encouraging, Samardzija’s pectoral injury morphed to a right shoulder issue that’s dogged him all season and culminated in a failed return to the rotation that was put to an end last week. And now, the Giants are eyeing a surgical solution to Cueto’s elbow issue.
When considered with the Giants’ chronically mediocre 2018 season, and their dip back below .500 just days before the trade deadline, Giants fans should prepare themselves that Cueto’s right arm may have pushed the needle toward “sell” for the front office.
The Giants open a two-game series in San Diego Monday night. Derek Holland (5-8, 3.92 ERA) takes on Eric Lauer (5-7, 5.29 ERA) to open the series, and Tuesday Dereck Rodríguez takes on Padres lefty Clayton Richard (7-10, 5.05 ERA).