SAN FRANCISCO -- Grabbing the baton in the relay race among pitching-hungry ballclubs, the Giants attempted to strengthen their starting rotation Monday by announcing an agreement with right-hander Johnny Cueto on a six-year, $130 million deal. The deal, which includes a club option for 2022, was finalized on Wednesday night. Cueto will be introduced in a news conference at AT&T Park that will air on MLB.com at 11:30 a.m. PT on Thursday.
The value of Cueto's contract, which was initially reported by CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, exceeded the six-year, $120 million bid that the Arizona Diamondbacks offered the free agent. Undaunted by Cueto's snub, the D-backs agreed with right-hander Zack Greinke on a six-year, $206.5 million pact Dec. 4. Bent on remaining competitive in the National League West, at least on paper -- green paper -- the Giants responded the next day by luring right-hander Jeff Samardzija from the free-agent market with a five-year, $90 million agreement.
Arizona acquired talented right-hander Shelby Miller from Atlanta during last week's Winter Meetings. That prompted San Francisco to take its turn by settling with Cueto.
The Giants announced that -- in addition to the club option -- Cueto's deal includes a clause that will allow him to opt out of the agreement after two years. He'll turn 32 by Opening Day that year. According to multiple reports, Cueto will be paid $46 million through the initial two years of his contract with San Francisco and thus would forsake a guaranteed $84 million if he exercises the opt-out.
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The Giants now can discontinue their search for starting pitching, their top offseason priority, and focus on obtaining a left fielder, their other pressing offseason concern. San Francisco has assembled a rotation led by All-Star left-hander Madison Bumgarner and bolstered by Samardzija and Cueto, two of the top hurlers available in free agency when the offseason began. Right-handers Jake Peavy and Matt Cain, who's striving to overcome lingering injuries, are expected to complete the rotation, though Chris Heston should provide competition for one of the spots.
"With these two significant additions we made, it gives us a balance of five guys who can give us the starts and innings we need to protect our bullpen and give us the best chance to compete for the division [title]," Giants general manager Bobby Evans said in a conference call. "That's the goal."
Several factors make the Giants and Cueto a fit for each other.
The Giants were among the handful of teams that could afford him. They cleared approximately $55 million of salary space for 2016 through retirements and attrition before the offseason began. Samardzija will consume only $10.8 million of that figure. Moreover, the Giants will receive more than $50 million of additional payroll flexibility after the 2016 season, with the expiration of contracts belonging to Peavy ($15 million), center fielder Angel Pagan ($11.25 million), right-hander Sergio Romo ($9 million), right-hander Santiago Casilla ($6.5 million), left-hander Javier Lopez ($5 million) and outfielder Gregor Blanco ($3.9 million).
San Francisco obviously can benefit from adding a performer of Cueto's ability. He finished 20-9 as recently as 2014, even while playing home games at Cincinnati's hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. That year, Cueto posted a 13-4 record with a remarkable 1.71 ERA in 18 home starts and finished second to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.
"You have a guy that has a chance to be an elite presence on your staff," Evans said.
In eight seasons, Cueto owns a 96-70 mark with a 3.30 ERA in 226 starts. That includes 2-1, 1.69 in three appearances at AT&T Park. He can thrive on deception as well as pure stuff.
"He gives many different looks to a hitter," Evans said. "When you see him the third time through the order, you don't know what's coming."
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Cueto also prompted considerable skepticism this year. He followed his 20-win campaign with an 11-13 finish, his worst since his 9-14 rookie season in 2008, and his 3.44 combined ERA with Cincinnati and Kansas City was his highest since he recorded a 3.64 figure in 2010. During May, Cueto weathered discomfort in his throwing elbow that didn't send him to the disabled list but limited his effectiveness. Acquired by the Royals shortly before the Trade Deadline, he went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 13 regular-season starts with Kansas City.
A Major League scout summarized Cueto's inconsistency: "I saw him during stretches of the year when he looked more like a back-end-of-the-rotation starter. And I saw stretches when he looked like a No. 1 starter."
Cueto resembled the latter in his final start of the year, when he flung a two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series in a 7-1 victory over the Mets.
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
For the first time in his career, the 29-year-old will enjoy both a spot in the NL and a pitcher-friendly home park -- two factors that should help his fantasy value. Additionally, the righty will work in front of a strong defensive unit that includes Buster Posey, an excellent pitch framer. With the Giants, Cueto should look more like the hurler who posted a 2.51 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP from the outset of 2011 until the moment he departed the Reds than the one who produced a 4.93 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP across 16 starts with the Royals. Fantasy owners may be wary of Cueto given that he briefly dealt with an elbow injury last season, but he has made at least 30 starts in six of his eight Major League campaigns.