Veteran right-hander Johnny Cueto is still available in free agency this season. The Padres should look into signing him to boost their depth in the starting rotation.
The Padres signed Seth Lugo with the intention to give him a chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation. That is a risk since Lugo has not made a start at the major league level since September 27, 2020. For his career, the splits between Lugo, the starter, and Lugo, the reliever, are quite stark. In 38 career starts, he owns a 4.35 ERA and 1.336 WHIP. As a reliever, which is what he has been the majority of his career, the ERA drops to 2.91 and the WHIP to 1.053.
That being said, the Padres need a hedge in the rotation in case Lugo can’t cut it as a starter.
Johnny Cueto can be that guy.
Padres fans are certainly familiar with Cueto and all of his quirks and idiosyncrasies. He spent six seasons in the division with the San Francisco Giants. He is a two-time All-Star and was the NL Cy Young runner-up in 2014 with the Reds. The Royals acquired him in the middle of the 2015 season as a mercenary to boost their pitching staff on the way to a World Series title.
During the 2018 season, Cueto injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery at the age of 32. He struggled to find his groove once he returned during parts of 2019 and the shortened 2020 campaign. However, in the last two seasons, 2021 with the Giants and last season with the White Sox, the Dominican hurler looked much more Cueto-esque. In 47 games since the start of 2021, he owns a 3.66 ERA and 110 ERA+ in 273 innings.
In 2022, he toed the rubber for the White Sox 25 times and logged over 158 innings, the most since his last All-Star appearance in 2016. Aside from his long recovery from Tommy John surgery that affected his 2018 through 2020 seasons, Cueto has been a model of consistency and the ultimate “innings-eater.”
He is no longer the bona fide ace he was with the Reds or in his early days with the Giants. However, he can still provide value in the middle or back end of a rotation. His walk rate was in the 88th percentile last season. His five-pitch mix, along with his quirky delivery and cadence, are solid weapons.
His 3.5 bWAR with Chicago last season ranked sixth in his 15-year career. There is still some life in that whip of a right arm.
The Padres would not need to count on Cueto to be a type of ace. They have three of those in Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. Nick Martinez and Lugo will be given a chance to fill out the rotation.
There is very little in the way of depth or insurance policies in case of injuries or failure to meet expectations.
Cueto offers both. At the very least, this would help spark competition in spring training. The best-case scenario is that all are healthy and ready to start, given the Padres a possible six-man rotation.
FanGraphs’ free agent tracker estimates he would command around $8 million for a season. The Padres’ deal for Lugo is worth $7.5 million per year. Something slightly higher than that for Cueto would help them land a proven veteran starter with a track record of reliability.