BOCA RATON, Fla. — In mid-September, it could be said that Johnny Cueto had the worst sense of timing among marquee free agents in recent baseball history.
Cueto struggled to a 2-6 record and 5.43 ERA over his first nine starts after a July trade to the Kansas City Royals, potentially costing himself tens of millions of dollars along the way. Scouts wondered if an arm injury was the cause of Cueto’s decline in performance.
Now he is a free agent, after a late September and October run that restored some of the market value he lost during the second half of the season. Aside from a disastrous start in Toronto during the American League Championship Series, Cueto was effective and even brilliant through the Royals’ run to the World Series title.
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Cueto’s final impression was emphatic: a complete-game victory in Game 2 of the World Series, in which he allowed only one earned run.
"He threw 96 (mph), with command, on the last day," his agent, Bryce Dixon, said Monday. "There’s not much more you need to say."
Dixon believes the postseason in general — and the World Series start specifically — demonstrated two key attributes: Cueto is healthy, and he can pitch on the big stage.
While with the Cincinnati Reds, Cueto missed one start in May because of elbow inflammation. An MRI at the time showed no structural damage. Cueto will need to pass a physical examination before his new contract is finalized, of course, but Dixon is confident that the postseason assuaged any concerns teams might have had.
Meanwhile, an external factor will work in Cueto’s favor this winter: A number of high-payroll teams — the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers and Giants — need at least one starting pitcher. Even if not all of them are interested in Cueto, competition among those clubs for the likes of David Price and Zack Greinke will create upward pressure in the marketplace.
As for how Cueto would adapt to a large market after spending his career in Cincinnati and Kansas City, Dixon said, "I think he’s shown that he’d do just fine. He had his first bit of real adversity (after the trade), and he turned it around. . . . He did not have a good outing in Toronto, and a lot of guys would have wilted under those circumstances. But he came back (in the World Series) and did better than anyone expected."
One general manager observed this week that Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann are regarded by the industry as occupying a tier immediately below that of Price and Greinke. Thus, it won’t be a surprise if Cueto and Zimmermann wait for Price and/or Greinke to sign massive contracts, then calibrate their asking prices accordingly.
The Royals aren’t viewed as a top suitor for Cueto, but he’d be interested in returning there. "Johnny enjoyed his time with the Royals," Dixon said. "He was very comfortable in the clubhouse right away and really likes the atmosphere there."
Cueto ranks second in the majors — behind only Clayton Kershaw – in adjusted ERA among pitchers who have thrown at least 800 innings over the past five seasons. Cueto, 29, is younger than Greinke (32) and Price (30).
So perhaps Cueto’s timing is impeccable after all.