Johnny Cueto Open To Return To White Sox

The White Sox are wrapping up a season that’ll finish right around .500, a disappointing follow-up to last year’s 93-win campaign. Among the culprits for their middle-of-the-road showing was a rotation that ranks 15th in ERA (3.82) and 14th in strikeout/walk rate differential (14.6 percentage points).

While a league average rotation probably isn’t what general manager Rick Hahn and his front office had in mind, there were a few bright spots. Dylan Cease doubled down on last year’s breakout and could be a finalist for the AL Cy Young award. Michael Kopech tailed off in the second half but flashed the ability to be a productive big league starter in his move from the bullpen. The most surprising positive performance from a White Sox starter is probably that of Johnny Cueto, though.

The 15-season MLB veteran wrapped up a six-year contract with the Giants at the end of last season. He wasn’t coming off a bad year, pitching to a 4.08 ERA over 22 outings. Nevertheless, he did so with a mediocre 20% strikeout rate, and the league clearly had skepticism about his ability to repeat those decent results. Cueto went unsigned until just before Opening Day, when he inked a minor league deal with the ChiSox. The contract came with a $4.2MM base salary for any time spent in the majors, an atypically large figure for a non-roster pact. That suggested Cueto was a high-priority minor league signee and may well have had some MLB offers with a lower base value. Nevertheless, it also indicated no team offered him both $4+MM and an Opening Day rotation spot, and he had to work his way onto Chicago’s roster after building into game shape in Triple-A.

Cueto took four starts in the minors before the White Sox selected his contract in mid-May. He’s been a fixture in the starting five from that point forward, and he’s gotten his strongest results since his 2016 campaign in San Francisco. Over 25 outings (24 of them starts), the two-time All-Star tallied 158 1/3 innings of 3.35 ERA ball. He averaged 6 1/3 frames per appearance and allowed three or fewer earned runs in 21 games. By and large, Cueto kept the White Sox in the game when he took the ball, more than making good on his contract. He also set himself up for a better trip to the open market this time around, as he’ll head back to free agency a month from now.

After his final start of the season yesterday, Cueto told reporters he’d welcome a return to Chicago (via James Fegan of the Athletic). The 36-year-old indicated he believes he can still pitch for another two or three seasons, foreclosing whatever small possibility there may have been he’d retire at year’s end.

How replicable Cueto’s 2022 production can be is an open question. Concern about his lack of swing-and-miss remains, as he punched out just 15.7% of opposing hitters. That’s the lowest rate of his career and more than six points south of the league average. His 42% ground-ball rate is right around the league mark. He did a solid job at limiting hard contact but wasn’t elite in that regard.

Where Cueto did excel is in avoiding free passes. He walked only 5.1% of batters faced, his lowest mark since 2016. He’s long had above-average control, but he was among the sport’s best strike-throwers in 2022. The veteran righty also avoided the injured list for the first time in six years, and he told Fegan and others yesterday he was pitching pain-free for the first time in years (presumably since before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2018).

Cueto certainly has locked in a big league contract during his upcoming trip to free agency. His 2022 season isn’t too dissimilar from Zack Greinke’s 2021 platform, which agent Bryce Dixon could point to as an optimistic comp. During his final year with the Astros, Greinke pitched to a 4.16 ERA with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 5.2% walk rate and a 44.4% grounder percentage. Greinke tallied a few more innings since he was on the big league roster from start to finish, but Cueto soaked up a bigger workload on a per-start basis.

Greinke went on to secure a one-year, $13MM pact from the Royals heading into his age-38 season. A likely future Hall of Famer and a former Cy Young winner, Greinke has had a more accomplished career than Cueto, and he’d been far more consistently durable before his platform year. It seems unlikely Cueto will quite reach a $13MM base salary for those reasons, but their respective seasons before free agency are alike.

Wade Miley, another veteran control artist coming off an excellent year from a run prevention perspective, pitched to a 3.37 ERA with an 18.1% strikeout rate through 163 innings with the Reds last season. The Cubs claimed him off waivers at the end of the year and exercised a $10MM option on his services for 2022. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, as Miley didn’t have the benefit of an open market bidding the way Cueto will this winter. Yet it affirms that a team valued Miley, who was entering his age-35 campaign, as at least a $10MM player, setting that as the seeming floor for what his market value would have been had he gotten to free agency.

Precisely where Cueto’s 2023 salary lands will obviously be determined in the coming months, but there’s no question he proved a valuable contributor for the White Sox. It stands to reason Chicago will at least maintain contact with his reps this winter, as they’re facing a fair bit of uncertainty in the starting staff. Cease will be back at the front of the rotation, and Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn will get chances to bounce back from disappointing 2022 campaigns.

Kopech figures to be in the season-opening starting five, but he’s never topped 140 2/3 innings in any professional season and will be coming off surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee (albeit with an expectation he’ll be full-go for Spring Training). Davis Martin seems the in-house favorite for the #5 spot after eight decent starts to begin his MLB career, but he’s never been a top prospect and was quite homer-prone in the minors. Pushing Martin down a peg or two on the rotation depth chart with an outside addition seems likely, particularly since Chicago’s thin farm system doesn’t offer much in the way of obvious upper minors rotation pieces.

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