For three months as a Royal, Johnny Cueto toed the line between brilliant and baffling. He stumbled through an unsightly stretch late in the season, refused to pitch on short rest in the playoffs and sustained an ungodly beating at the hands of the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. He balanced those moments out with nights that will live on in franchise history, like his eight-inning gem to clinch the American League Division Series or his complete game in the World Series.
In the end, the instability did little to alter Cueto’s drawing power as a free agent. He agreed to a six-year contract with San Francisco on Monday afternoon. Reports indicated that the deal is worth $130 million.
The Royals swapped three left-handed pitching prospects, including 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan, with Cincinnati in order to acquire Cueto in July. But the Royals never committed a serious pursuit of him as a free agent. His price always exceeded their budget. Instead, the team has already completed a reunion with right-hander Chris Young on a two-year, $11.5 million deal.
Cueto, 29, entered 2015 as one of the most productive, reliable pitchers in baseball. His 2.77 ERA since 2011 trails only Clayton Kershaw among qualified starters. But in some circles, his stock took a hit during his time with the Royals.
Earlier in the season, Cueto missed a start for the Reds because of elbow stiffness. Whispers about his medical condition continued as the year continued. Along the way, both Cueto and the Royals medical staff insisted he did not demonstrate any symptoms of elbow trouble.
Even so, Cueto suffered through an abysmal stretch in August and September. Across five starts, he posted a 9.57 ERA. Royals officials struggled to break through with Cueto and help discover a solution for his troubles. At last, Cueto explained part of the problem stemmed from the positioning of two-time All Star catcher Salvador Perez.
Cueto experienced some improvement as Perez adjusted to his wishes. Even so, he was shaky in the playoffs. The Royals designated Yordano Ventura for Game 1 of the first round because Cueto did not want to adjust his schedule to pitch on short rest. Cueto gave up four runs in Game 2, but avoided a loss thanks to the first of eight October comebacks for the Royals.
In the series clincher five days later, Cueto atoned by striking out eight across eight innings. His lone glitch was a two-run homer allowed in the second frame. He did not let another Astros batter to reach base.
“He showed up,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He showed up, and he came up big.”
Cueto could not repeat his performance in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series. The Blue Jays pilloried him to the tune of eight runs in two frames. Cueto smiled as the Rogers Centre crowd showered him with jeers upon his exit.
As the Royals pondered how best to utilize Cueto, they settled upon a solution: Do not let him pitch on the road. So manager Ned Yost altered his pitching rotation to keep Cueto in games at Kauffman Stadium in the World Series. Cueto only needed to pitch one. As his teammates pounced upon Jacob deGrom, Cueto spun nine innings of one-run ball in Game 2.
He would never again pitch in a Royals uniform. The team captured the crown three games later. He became a free agent five days after that. And the Royals showed little interest in him before he signed on Monday. But Cueto — at times confounding, at times clutch — will maintain his place in Kansas City history.