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When the White Sox inked Johnny Cueto to a minor league deal, the team’s outlook was simple.
They wanted to see what the former Cy Young candidate and World Series champ could do. He was a depth option for a starting rotation down one of its best pitchers for the first two months of the season. As anyone will tell you, you need more than five starting pitchers to get through a season. You definitely need more than five to win the whole thing.
But even before he debuted for the White Sox on Monday, finally getting his shot in the opening contest of a five-game set in the Show Me State, the plan sounded pretty clear, at least from the manager who had spent the last few weeks talking up Cueto’s ability and possible contribution.
Asked if Cueto would stick around as a member of the White Sox’ rotation, if he pitched well enough Monday and in any other starts he’d get in the coming days and weeks, Tony La Russa was pretty definitive.
“We would be disappointed if he’s not (part of the rotation moving forward),” the South Side skipper said. “And we don’t expect to be disappointed.”
Indeed, the White Sox weren’t disappointed with what Cueto did in his first performance wearing their uniform.
He was simply dominant, shutting out the Royals over his six innings of work. He struck out seven batters and allowed just two hits to go along with a pair of walks. In just one jam to speak of all evening – he put two men on with only one out in the sixth inning – he danced out of danger by getting the Royals’ Nos. 2 and 3 hitters, finding something extra in that last inning, not only hitting some of his highest radar-gun readings but sprinting all over the infield trying to make defensive plays.
Doing that thing he does, where he has a new delivery on seemingly every pitch, Cueto was nothing short of sensational.
“Wow,” La Russa said after the White Sox’ 5-3 extra-inning win. “That’s the Johnny Cueto you’ve seen. He’s so deceptive. And whatever the fastball is, it plays harder and he spots it. He’s down and soft, and then all of a sudden he throws one by you. To be that sharp just shows you his talent and the work that he did to get ready.
“You can’t be surprised because that’s what he has been his whole career.”
Yes, it looked like the mid 2010s all over again.
Cueto won a World Series with this very Royals organization in 2015. In the seasons both prior and after that championship campaign, he finished in the top six of the NL Cy Young vote, pitching for the Reds in 2014 and the Giants in 2016. The results got worse and worse, due to injuries, mostly, during his lengthy time in San Francisco, hence his availability on a minor league contract this spring. But he signed up with the White Sox, and after getting his own personal spring training in Arizona and at Triple-A Charlotte, he’s back in the majors and doing, well, this.
“I’ve been doing that throughout my whole career,” Cueto said, through team interpreter Billy Russo, of all the herky-jerkiness, shaking and shimmying he does when delivering his pitches. “Every time I’m on the mound, I’m just having fun. That’s a way for me to have fun, too.”
Asked what it would be like to face Cueto, Luis Robert, who smacked the tie-breaking, game-winning home run in the 10th inning Monday night, made this assessment:
“It would be very difficult.”
It’s worth remembering that these were the Royals, of course, a team that came into Monday’s game with a 12-20 record and one of the least productive offenses in baseball. But Cueto carved them right up, flashing his potential as an effective member of the South Side rotation.
“Throughout my career, I always have put a special emphasis on my first start of the season,” Cueto said. “I did it today, and I was just excited. I was facing a young team, a team that I used to play with, and I was excited. I’m with a team that is a good team, too, with a lot of young talent.”
Starting pitching, of course, has not been the White Sox’ problem during their slowish start to a season with championship-level expectations. The trio of Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech has been mostly excellent. And Vince Velasquez and Dallas Keuchel have turned in some successful outings, too, in recent weeks. Lynn, recovering from preseason knee surgery, is due back in relatively short order, at the beginning of next month.
But as Rick Hahn always says, you can never have enough pitching. As La Russa always says, the White Sox might find themselves with a good problem to have: too many good players.
Considering the manager’s stated distaste for a six-man rotation, math would indicate that Cueto sticking around and Lynn coming back would require some rearranging of the starting staff. The easiest answer might be moving Velasquez to the bullpen, where he was slated to go had Lynn not suffered the spring injury, and doing something with Keuchel, as those guys were, prior to Cueto’s debut Monday, the team’s Nos. 4 and 5 arms in the rotation. That’s easier said than done, though, as Keuchel comes with a hefty price tag given what’s still owed to him on the expensive free-agent contract he signed before the 2020 season.
The White Sox do have a little bit of time to make those decisions, and having a bevy of arms will help them immensely, at least in the immediate.
Counting Monday, the White Sox will require seven different arms for seven games, with a doubleheader Tuesday in Kansas City and Kopech’s next start pushed back to Saturday in New York. Kopech is on that workload-management plan, remember, and the White Sox are going to start getting creative in that department. The extra-days-between-starts strategy paid off big time with Carlos Rodón a year ago, and it could be helpful to not only Kopech but other guys in the rotation, too, as the summer wears on.
“That would be a great concern to have,” La Russa said before Monday’s game. “Get Lynn back, have him be good. The other thing is once we get through these (next eight games before the team’s next off day), have the days off and that’s the perfect time there in June to give extra days to guys.
“Nowadays, they all benefit (from extra rest between starts). It’s good for Dylan what we can do for him. But I think for the veterans, too. … If you expect to contend, which we do, a lot of those games in August and September, draining games off the schedule, they’re more important. And that’s how a lot of guys get measured, especially pitchers.
“So to be fair to them and us, all the pitches you can save (is) like putting them in the bank.”
No matter when Giolito comes back from his COVID bout, it’s anticipated during this series in Kansas City, still requiring another arm to be deployed at some point.
But in the longer term, Cueto figures to get a spot, and there will be decisions that come along with that. Right now, it’s a potentially tough decision to make, but a good one, as La Russa would say, considering it stems from Cueto’s positive contributions.
It’s only one night, but the White Sox low-risk, high-reward roll of the dice has yielded some initial returns.
“That’s why he’s had a very special career in winning situations and he’s a winning-type pitcher,” La Russa said. “We saw it today.”
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