SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto will turn 34 on Saturday. At some point this season he should cross the 2,000-inning threshold as a big leaguer, and the Giants pitcher doesn't have to look far for a reminder of all those bullets. His right elbow is stamped with a scar from Tommy John surgery.
Yet as Cueto reported to camp Monday, he was as worry-free as ever. He has spent nearly two full years rehabbing, slimming down and building strength in his elbow and shoulder. The hard work is behind him.
"I feel like the arm is a baby," Cueto said.
The Giants are hopeful a fresh Cueto looks much like the old Cueto. An All-Star in his first season with the Giants, Cueto saw his numbers drop off in 2017, had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and returned last September for four September starts that were good for peace of mind but not projection.
It is hard for the Giants to know quite what they'll get from Cueto this year, but there's a chance he's their Opening Day starter. Any sort of return to form would quickly accelerate things for the 2020 club and future rosters. With two years left on his nine-figure deal, Cueto could find himself as one of the better trade chips on the July market.
He prefers a different path, to lead an unlikely surge from a young team, and that work started Thursday when he got off a bullpen mound for the first time this spring. Manager Gabe Kapler stood nearby and watched the majority of the session.
"First of all, he's in great shape," Kapler said. "Equally important for me is how well he controls his body and how well he changes up the pace of his delivery, and then he's able to maintain his command, whether it's a quick-pitch or it's a pause at the top of his delivery or just his normal delivery. He's able to control his body well and repeat his release point."
Kapler said he appreciated the pace of Cueto's session, noting the intent of every pitch. That's something the new staff is trying to inject into camp, and the Giants will bring in umpires to call balls and strikes when pitchers go through a second round of bullpens this weekend.
That will be one of the rare times over the past two years that Cueto has thrown in front of one. He made it back on time last year, but threw just 16 innings, allowing nine runs.
The numbers were never going to matter. What was important to Cueto was that he got back in the big leagues before the end of the 2019 season.
"The first couple of times I felt normal, but again, you still have it in your head the pain you felt before," Cueto said through interpreter Erwin Higueros.
That's all gone this spring. Cueto is under no restrictions, although the Giants don't intend to let any starter go 200 innings this year. It's unclear if that message has been delivered yet to the pitcher himself. Cueto spent the offseason in the Dominican Republic and did not have much contact with the new staff. He indicated that his winter did not include much attention paid to the Madison Bumgarner saga, or other free agency rumors.
Cueto lives his best life in the offseason, mixing gatherings at his sprawling complex with workouts on the beach and at local parks. One bullpen session he posted on Instagram last month appeared to take place in a clearing in a park.
That's certainly not how this new staff plans things, but Kapler found a lot to like on his first day watching Cueto. He even asked him what kind of beard oil he uses.
"I'm anxious to find out," Kapler said, smiling. "The sun was beaming on it and it was really reflective. It was awesome."
Giants' Johnny Cueto says healthy right arm is as fresh as 'a baby' originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area