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“Pitching depth is going to be a priority.”
That’s what Rick Hahn said when he met the media for the first time after the lockout ended. Before anyone knew anything about Michael Kopech’s late-February COVID bout. Before Garrett Crochet needed Tommy John surgery. Before Craig Kimbrel was traded to the Dodgers. Before Lance Lynn tore a ligament in his knee.
The White Sox were going to prioritize pitching depth before any of that happened. And they’re still prioritizing it now.
Johnny Cueto is now a White Sock, per reports, the kind of news that would get South Side fans really, really excited if we were on the eve of the 2017 season rather than the 2022 one.
Yes, it’s been a while since Cueto – who was one of the best pitchers in baseball with the Reds, won a World Series with the Royals and nearly extended the even-year dynasty in the first year of his contract with the Giants – was Cueto. Since finishing sixth in the NL Cy Young vote in 2016, he’s been bedeviled by injuries, including Tommy John, and turned in inconsistent results when actually on the mound: a 4.38 ERA in 72 games over the last five years. He made a total of 13 starts during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Of course, no one is expecting Cueto to be Cueto anymore. Right now, the White Sox giving him a minor league deal three days before they open their 2022 season in Detroit, being a major league pitcher will suffice.
That minor league deal, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal explained, means Cueto will not start the season in the major league rotation, no surprise considering he hasn’t been under a team’s watch since last season and the lockout-impacted run up to Opening Day has thrown the abilities of all pitchers, contracted or not, into question. Depending on where he is physically, it might be a while before he’s pitching for the major league club. Heck, if things don’t go well, he might not pitch for it at all.
It’s here that you’ve got to separate 2022 Cueto from his glossy resume on the back of his baseball card.
Think of Cueto’s acquisition as the long awaited sequel to the Ervin Santana signing back in 2019. There are a lot of differences, of course, as Santana was joining a rebuilding White Sox team that didn’t harbor any championship-level expectations, as the 2022 team obviously does. Santana’s tenure, too, went horribly. He was scorched for 14 runs in 13.1 innings over only three starts before the White Sox pulled the plug.
That can’t happen this time around, not when games in April and May count as much as the ones in August and September, but the comparison remains valid. This is depth. This is extra. This is a flier on a one-time dominant pitcher in a time of emergency.
In the wake of the Lynn injury – the self-proclaimed “Big Bastard” will be off a mound for the next four weeks while recovering from knee surgery, needing ramp-up time after that; the White Sox could be without arguably their best starting pitcher for the first third of the regular season – the team is likely to turn to internal options Reynaldo López and Vince Velasquez. Both pitchers were ticketed for innings-eating roles out of the bullpen to be reserved in case of emergency in the rotation.
Well, emergency came to the rotation much sooner than hoped, and though there might not be a need for a fifth starter until the team’s eighth game of the regular season, one of those two guys will almost surely be getting multiple starts in April.
While López had a bounce-back season as a swingman in 2021 and team brass has confidence in Velasquez, there’s not – to borrow a favorite phrase of Tony La Russa – “deep depth” when it comes to starting pitching. The minor league options are not plentiful, even if the White Sox are confident in their young arms. Assistant GM and farm director Chris Getz listed Jimmy Lambert, Tanner Banks, Kade McClure and Emilio Vargas as the top of the list of minor league starting-pitching depth. That quartet has Getz’s approval but might be even less reassuring to fans than Velasquez, who’s coming off a 6.30 ERA with the Phillies and Padres last year.
And so, Cueto. Not as the savior. Just as another arm.
Though this was no normal offseason, you could do worse than taking a low-risk dice roll on a three-time top-10 Cy Young guy three days before Opening Day. But Cueto would be a valuable contributor to the 2022 White Sox if he did nothing more than help keep the rotation afloat while Lynn is in recovery mode. Anything else would be gravy.
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