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Johnny Cueto’s race to the majors

The right-handed pitcher has signed a minor league contract with Chicago, with an earmarked spot in the White Sox rotation ASAP.

Milwaukee Brewers v San Francisco Giants
Pitcher Johnny Cueto has signed a minor league contract with the White Sox.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Late Monday, the Chicago White Sox agreed to a one-year, $4.2 million minor league deal with right-handed pitcher Johnny Cueto of the San Francisco Giants. The new deal is low-risk for the White Sox, who are desperately looking for rotation arms, and includes a May 15 opt-out that Cueto can exercise should he not be moved into the majors by that date.

Cueto signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 2004 as an undrafted amateur free agent for a $35,000 signing bonus. While he was in the minor leagues, Cueto was named the Reds’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year for two years in a row before making his MLB debut for the team on April 3, 2008. Cueto was traded to the Kansas City Royals on July 26, 2015, in exchange for pitchers Brandon Finnegan (now a Charlotte Knight), John Lamb and Cody Reed. Between the Reds and Royals in the 2015 season, Cueto had 32 starts and went 11–13 with a 3.44 ERA, striking out 176 batters across 212 innings, allowing just 194 hits and 46 walks. Following the 2015 World Series, which the Royals won in five games, Cueto became a free agent for the first time in his career.

San Francisco Giants v New York Mets
Cueto’s deal includes a May 15 opt-out if he hasn’t been called up to the majors.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

On Dec. 16, 2015, Cueto signed a six-year, $130 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, with a club option for 2022 worth $22 million with a $5 million buyout. He made his Giants debut on April 5 against the Milwaukee Brewers and on July 6, he was selected to his second All-Star game. He finished the 2016 season 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and placed sixth in the National League Cy Young voting. In 2017, Cueto began struggling with various injury issues, starting with ongoing blisters on his pitching hand that landed him on the injured list, and a slight forearm injury. On May 7, 2018, he was diagnosed with a right elbow strain and put on the injured list, and although he was told at that time that he would not require Tommy John surgery, he eventually went under the knife in August, ending his season. In the 2018 season, he made nine starts, with an ERA of 3.23 in 53 innings.

After he returned from surgery, Cueto spent time in the minor leagues before returning to the Giants on Sept. 10, 2019. He finished the 2019 season with an ERA of 5.06 and the shortened 2020 season with an ERA of 5.40. Cueto was in slightly better form in 2021, ending the season 7-7 with a 4.08 ERA in 22 games covering 114 23 innings. He was left off of the San Francisco roster for the NL Division Series, and the team declined his $22 million club option for 2022, paying the $5 million buyout.

Milwaukee Brewers v San Francisco Giants
The 36-year-old starter underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Signing a minor league deal with the White Sox may seem a bit odd for a veteran, but Cueto has made a strategic move. If Cueto had signed an MLB contract and consented to being optioned, he would not have been able to control when he would be moved up into the majors. This way, if he isn’t moved into the majors by May 15, Cueto can opt out of the contract and try his luck elsewhere. Of course, due to Cueto missing spring training with Chicago, he will start the season with in Triple-A, and the race will be on to prove himself worthy of a ticket to the South Side.

From the perspective of the White Sox, Cueto could add some crucial veteran depth. In the last week, Craig Kimbrel has been traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder AJ Pollock, Garrett Crochet has undergone Tommy John surgery (taking him out of the entire 2022 season), and Lance Lynn has been sidelined after an MRI revealed a slight tear in his knee. Cueto admittedly hasn’t performed spectacularly for quite a few seasons, but he was arguably the best option left in free agency and has the potential to be a decent back-end rotation guy, or possibly even long reliever, should he prove himself in Triple-A over the next few weeks. Jimmy Lambert, Kade McClure and Emilio Vargas have all been mentioned as pitchers in the White Sox farm system who could potentially assist Chicago with adding further depth in their staff, but a veteran like Cueto is likely to take preference in Tony La Russa’s eyes.

This certainly isn’t the core starter acquisition we were all hoping for, but it isn’t terrible. It’ll be interesting to watch Cueto’s race to the big leagues coming up to May 15.