Cueto, on Minors deal, adds to Sox depth

April 5th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- White Sox manager Tony La Russa had the chance to learn a little bit about Johnny Cueto when the veteran right-hander was pitching for the Reds from 2008-11 and La Russa was in the dugout with the Cardinals.

“Whenever he pitched against us, he was a pitcher more than a thrower,” La Russa said on Tuesday of Cueto, who agreed with the White Sox a Minor League deal the day before. “He had excellent command of three or four pitches that became like 10 or 12 because he had different angles coming at you.

“It’s an exciting move. We’re looking forward to it. … anxious to get him here, get him to [Triple-A] Charlotte. We’ve seen some videos and stuff of his workouts and his throwing, but you have to eyeball him. Very positive move for us.”

White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz worked with Cueto in 2020, La Russa noted.

It’s a low-risk move as the White Sox, who had not announced the deal as official, try to enhance their pitching staff. An apparent White Sox strong suit took a pair of direct hits when starting pitcher Lance Lynn needed surgery to repair a slight tear in a tendon near his right knee, sidelining him for approximately two months, and left-handed reliever Garrett Crochet was lost for the season because of Tommy John surgery.

The White Sox also traded reliever Craig Kimbrel to the Dodgers. So, while some of the outside focus might be on the rotation, the White Sox also could help themselves in relief.

Chris Getz, the White Sox assistant general manager for player development, mentioned Tanner Banks, Jimmy Lambert, Kade McClure and Emilio Vargas as a few pitchers who could help the White Sox from within their system. Now Cueto, 36, can be added to that list.

How much time Cueto needs to get ready is uncertain.

“Good question,” La Russa said. “Hoping not long. But I know he’s been working. He’s a guy Ethan has had communication with. I think there is something to that.”

Cueto signed a six-year, $130 million contract with the Giants in December 2015, and his first season with San Francisco proceeded according to plan. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA, nabbed his second All-Star selection and finished sixth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

Things went south after that. Injuries played a big part, including Tommy John surgery in 2018.

Cueto made only 13 starts from 2018-19. Over the final five years of his contract, he went 21-22 with a 4.38 ERA (95 ERA+) across 72 games (71 starts). He enjoyed some strong outings early in ‘21 but missed time with lat and elbow injuries and finished with a 4.08 ERA (100 ERA+), 98 strikeouts and 30 walks in 114 2/3 innings.

A right elbow strain kept Cueto out for most of September, with his only appearance that month coming on Sept. 30. It was the first relief outing of his Major League career. The Giants then left Cueto off their roster for the NL Division Series and declined a $22 million club option for 2022 (paying a $5 million buyout).

Lucas Giolito will get a third straight Opening Day start Friday in Detroit, followed by Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech.

Kopech spotty in spring finale
Kopech’s second and final 2022 Cactus League start came Tuesday in a 9-6 victory over the Padres, and he allowed two runs on two hits and four walks in two-plus innings.

In the second inning of the White Sox spring finale, Kopech walked three and allowed two hits, leading to La Russa removing him with nobody out. Kopech re-entered the game and pitched a scoreless third with a strikeout of Eric Hosmer.

Kopech didn’t believe that effort met his high personal standards, even in Spring Training.

“Truth be told, I wish I had more answers for you,” said Kopech, who struck out one and topped out at 96 mph. “I came out there with little to no feel and pressed a little hard trying to find the zone and work around it, instead of attacking hitters like I know I should do.

“Getting a chance to sit down and get back up, I attacked guys a little bit more and still was all over the place. Bottom line is there's some things to iron out. It is just spring, but we're moving into the season, so I hope to take what I learned from this one and move on to the next.”

The Spring Training target was to build Kopech to go four or five innings when he takes the mound in Detroit, per Kopech. After his performance Tuesday, the right-hander said, “Five may be a stretch.”

“But If I’m cruising, I’m cruising,” Kopech said. “And I think they’ll let that happen.” writer Andrew Simon contributed to this report.