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Johnny Cueto's Opt-Out Clause Could Be Dream Scenario for SF Giants

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2016

San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto puts on a cap before practice for the spring baseball season in Scottsdale, Ariz., Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Johnny Cueto has yet to throw a meaningful pitch for the San Francisco Giants, so it's a bit early to be talking about his opt-out clause. Right?

Well, yes. But let's do it anyway, because speculation is fun and opt-outs matter in today's MLB.

The Giants, in case you missed it, handed Cueto a six-year, $130 million deal this winter after whiffing on Zack Greinke. Like many big contracts these days, Cueto's has an escape clause wherein he can test the free-agent waters again after the 2017 season.

This sets up two possible scenarios:

Scenario A: Cueto gives San Francisco its money's worth this year and next, then hits the market ahead of his age-32 season.

Scenario B: Cueto struggles or gets injured and decides to stick around for the duration of the deal.

Now, if you're the Giants, obviously you prefer Scenario A. Two years of prime Cueto—the guy who eclipsed 200 innings in each of the last two seasons and led the National League in strikeouts in 2014—would look mighty nice next to ace lefty Madison Bumgarner. 

It would also sting to watch Cueto walk away under those circumstances. But it could end up a blessing in disguise.

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Think of it this way: In 2016, the Giants are getting Cueto in his prime. Yes, there are questions about the subpar stat line he put up after a trade-deadline swap to the Kansas City Royals.

And there are the elbow issues that forced him to miss a start last year with the Cincinnati Reds. "Johnny, a little bit unfairly, had a lot of questions about his arm," Cueto's agent, Bryce Dixon said, per CSN Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic.

But, as he showed with his sparkling start for KC in Game 2 of the World Series, Cueto still has the stuff to be one of the most dominant right-handers in the game.

Here, take a look for yourself:

The projection systems are optimistic, with ZiPS foretelling a 2.87 ERA in 207 innings, per FanGraphs. And in 2017, Cueto will be in a pseudo-contract year, with all of the added motivation that implies.

Pitchers can break down at any time, but the probability of Cueto throwing at an All-Star level for the next two seasons is high, especially when you factor in the Giants' excellent defense and the spacious confines of AT&T Park.

So, back to Cueto's opt-out. If he exercises it, he'll join the post-2017 season's free-agent class. The following year, however, boasts an impossibly deep pool that could also include the likes of Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Jason Heyward, Jose Fernandez, Dallas Keuchel and Matt Harvey. 

"That's decent talent," an unnamed general manager told MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince, presumably with his tongue inserted firmly in his cheek. "That's a good year."

With the remainder of Cueto's contract off the ledger, the Giants would be free to go after one or more of those franchise stars in 2018. Sure, bidders will be plentiful and salaries will melt eyeballs. But with that much talent for the taking, everyone should be angling for payroll flexibility.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of a six-year deal, the Giants signed Cueto for two years. Then imagine he acquits himself admirably for those two years before signing a longer deal with someone else and allowing San Francisco to ink any of those players listed up there. 

If Cueto pitches well enough to opt out after the 2017 season, it could be the best outcome for the Giants.
If Cueto pitches well enough to opt out after the 2017 season, it could be the best outcome for the Giants.Eric Risberg/Associated Press/Associated Press

Sounds like something close to a dream scenario, right? At the very least, it's nothing to lose sleep over, as McCovey Chronicles' Grant Brisbee outlined:

...the biggest downside to every contract is that the team will have to pay the entire contract to a pitcher who isn't worth it. That's still true with a traditional contract. If you're telling me that the biggest downside specific to an opt-out deal is that another team might get the chance to absorb the risk of a pitcher entering his mid-30s, and the consolation prize is that the Giants get two fantastic years and exactly what they paid for, I'm just not that scared.

That runs counter to Commissioner Rob Manfred, who made it clear in December he's not a fan of the opt-out.

"Personally, I don't see the logic of it," he said, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. "But clubs do what they do."

If Manfred wants an example of why opt-outs can benefit the team as well as the player, Cueto might be the poster boy.

Maybe he'll crash and burn for the next two seasons and the Giants will be on the hook to pay him. Or maybe he'll opt out and they'll choose to bring him back. Remember, we're hanging out in Speculationville. 

But if you're trying to game out the best outcome for San Francisco, it's two years of top-shelf Cueto and dollars to spend in 2018.

First, though, let's watch him throw a meaningful pitch in the orange and black. 

All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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