Why Johnny Cueto likely to play winter ball for first time in 12 years

Alex Pavlovic
·3 min read

Why Cueto likely will pitch for hometown team in winter ball originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Giants Instagram was an interesting place in recent days. If you scrolled the app, you saw a handful of Giants posting pictures from Will Smith's wedding and others from Tyler Rogers' wedding. Patrick Bailey got married over the weekend, too, and fellow 2020 draft pick Nick Swiney was among the guests. 

Then there was Johnny Cueto, who posted a series of food videos and then one in which he was doing rope drills in a local stadium. Cueto isn't just getting a head start on the 2021 season. He is poised to do something rare -- pitch in the Dominican winter league as an established star.

Reports out of the Dominican Republic said Cueto was committed to pitching for his hometown team, Estrellas Orientales, and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi confirmed that possibility on a Wednesday afternoon Zoom call with beat reporters. Zaidi said the Giants have talked to Cueto and his agent, Bryce Dixon, about playing, although no final decision has been made.

"We've had conversations with Johnny about it. For somebody that's as big of a name and the star down there as he is, it's a big deal to be able to pitch in that winter league and it means a lot to a lot of people," Zaidi said. "At the same time, he came back from a significant injury, had a full season and a relatively incident-free season. We're still having some of those conversations, but know that there's interest in having him pitch there."

The decision would be somewhat unusual, in that the winter leagues generally are filled these days with younger Latin American players as well as guys who qualify more as journeymen. But for Cueto and the Giants, perhaps there's some benefit. 

Cueto is entering the final season of a six-year, $130 million contract, and the previous three have been either lost to injury or not up to his standards. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and missed most of that season and nearly all of the next one. In 12 starts in 2020, he logged a 5.40 ERA which was the highest among qualified NL starters. By ERA+ (79), it was his worst stretch in the big leagues. Staying on a mound in December or January may prove to be helpful for a pitcher who relies so much on feel and command. 

RELATED: Five free agents who could fill Drew Smyly's role

Estrellas Orientales is based in San Pedro de Macoris, which is Cueto's birthplace, and managed by Jose Alguacil, a longtime Giants coach who was set to be at Double-A Richmond this season but was asked to help out during summer camp instead when the pandemic wiped out the minor league year. Alguacil was previously a first base coach on Bruce Bochy's staff and knows Cueto well. Their general manager, Felix Peguero, is also a Giants employee.

Cueto has not played winter ball since the 2008 offseason, when he was coming off his rookie year with the Cincinatti Reds and made one appearance for Aguilas Cibaeñas. Estrellas has more than a dozen players this season who belong to MLB teams, the most notable of whom is Padres catcher Francisco Mejia. Estrellas went more than 50 years without a title before winning in 2019 behind Fernando Tatis Jr. 

Download and subscribe to the Balk Talk Podcast