Johnny Cueto Would Return to No-Doubt Ace Status in AT&T Park

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 20, 2015

Kansas City Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto throws during the first inning of Game 2 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the New York Mets Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

We spend a lot of time early in the free-agent season discussing good fits and where players would like to go. And then it still almost always comes down to which team offers the most money.

It probably will with Johnny Cueto, too, but in his case, maybe it shouldn't. Well, maybe it should, if the team that offers the most money is the San Francisco Giants.

Cueto and the Giants feel like the ultimate good fit, especially from the pitcher's standpoint. And if there's any player on this winter's free-agent market who should be shopping for the best fit, it's Johnny Cueto.

The Giants may well favor Zack Greinke, and as I wrote a couple of weeks back, he would be a great fit for them. Cueto wouldn't be a bad second choice for them—and they would be a great first choice for him.

With their pitcher-friendly ballpark and their pitcher-friendly combo of manager Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti, the Giants would be a nice, comfortable choice for any pitcher. But if there's one pitcher this winter who seems to thrive on comfort, it's Cueto.

Cueto got out of his comfort zone in Game 3 of the ALCS, and the results weren't pretty.
Cueto got out of his comfort zone in Game 3 of the ALCS, and the results weren't pretty.Harry How/Getty Images

Remember in the World Series, when the Kansas City Royals arranged their rotation with the main goal of making sure Cueto would only pitch at home? The Royals said publicly they believed Cueto could pitch anywhere but acknowledged privately they had an ultra-sensitive ace who responds best in an environment where he's comfortable.

Sure enough, Cueto pitched like a no-doubt ace twice during October, both times in crucial games—both times in his Kauffman Stadium comfort zone. He beat the Houston Astros there in Game 5 of the division series and was even better in his World Series Game 2 complete-game win over the New York Mets.

The Royals traded for Cueto as a rental ace, and those two wins justified the price they paid. They'll let him move on now, fine for him because while Kauffman Stadium was a great place for him to pitch, the American League as a whole wasn't.

So now he's a free agent, in a market heavy on starting pitchers but featuring just two true aces in David Price and Zack Greinke. Or maybe it's three aces, if you can count Cueto.

You can count him, if he's the guy we all saw in the World Series. You can count him, if he's the guy whose National League ERA since the start of the 2011 season is 2.51, second to Clayton Kershaw (2.11) and better than Zack Greinke (2.75) and Madison Bumgarner (3.05), among others.

Remember, Cueto made half of those starts in homer-friendly Great American Ball Park, where he's the only guy to survive at least 10 career starts with an ERA under 3.00.

Imagine what he could do at AT&T Park. Or instead of imagining, check out Cueto's three career starts in San Francisco, where he pitched 21.1 innings and allowed just four earned runs (a 1.69 ERA) and 14 hits.

Cueto looked good in red, and in Royals blue, but Giants fans might love him in orange and black.
Cueto looked good in red, and in Royals blue, but Giants fans might love him in orange and black.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

We've gotten a long way into this without mentioning Cueto's health, not because it's not an issue, but simply because we don't really know. His agent made the point that he looked plenty healthy in that World Series win over the Mets, but the Giants or any other interested team will want assurances from their own medical staff before proceeding.

The whispers about his elbow have been around for months and gained steam when the Cincinnati Reds pushed back a couple of Cueto's starts early in the season. He was still able to top 200 innings for the third time in four years and was able to make all his starts in October without any hint of health issues.

Cueto's October included those two outstanding starts against the Astros and Mets, but also that total clunker in Game 3 of the ALCS in Toronto. He seemed overly concerned about possible sign-stealing, just as he had seemed to get overly rattled by the sing-song "Cue-to! Cue-to!" chants during the 2013 National League Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh.

If you're shopping for an ace who will command the type of money Cueto will likely get (Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com predicted a six-year, $144 million contract), maybe you want a guy who doesn't get rattled. But every free agent comes with warts. Price is going to get more money than any free-agent pitcher on the market, and he has never won a postseason start.

Cueto had two huge wins just last month. Put him in his comfort zone, and he can pitch like a true ace.

Put him with the Giants in AT&T Park, and he can earn that title.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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