Why won’t the team accept that Cueto is a sunk cost?
After years of stubbornly relying on internal, mostly inexperienced starting pitching options, Miami Marlins principal owner Bruce Sherman opened up his wallet so that his front office could add the accomplished and eclectic Johnny Cueto on a one-year, $8.5 million contract via free agency. The Marlins paid what was the going rate for an elderly back-end starter, anticipating some regression from his 2022 campaign with the Chicago White Sox—3.5 bWAR in 158.1 IP—but still counting on him to be an efficient innings eater and positive clubhouse presence.
The Marlins were wrong, and now their stubbornness is manifesting itself in a different way.
Cueto has been returned from rehab and reinstated from the 60-day injured list. He initially landed on the IL on April 4 with right biceps tightness, then suffered a sprained ankle during his initial rehab assignment. During his time away, the 37-year-old cut off his signature dreadlocks and put on some weight. He embarked on a fresh rehab assignment one month ago to reinforce a contending Marlins team with serious rotation depth concerns.
Just one problem: he’s washed up.
I really wanted this to work, as I imagine many of you did, but Cueto has nothing to contribute.
Often one of the first places we look when evaluating starting pitchers is earned run average, but that isn’t applicable to rehab assignments. ERA is fickle over such a limited sample size. I won’t even reference ERA in Cueto’s case.
Rather, the Marlins (or any other MLB team) should be putting a greater emphasis on fielder independent pitching (FIP), quality of stuff and command when assessing a veteran’s readiness to return. Cueto has not checked any of these boxes.
There are more than 2,000 pitchers in Minor League Baseball this season who have thrown at least 20 innings. Cueto’s 10.81 FIP across 29 frames is the worst of them all. We have advanced MiLB stats available going back to 2006 via FanGraphs and Cueto’s FIP is third-highest for any single season during that span (min. 20 IP) behind only 2022 Jordan Sheffield (11.71) and 2011 Ian Snell (11.10), both of whom played in more extreme hitter-friendly environments. To be crystal clear, Cueto is struggling to this extent against minor leaguers—two starts with Double-A Pensacola and five with Triple-A Jacksonville—and now he’s being bumped up to the highest level?!
Home runs are largely responsible for inflating Cueto’s FIP. Perhaps the most astonishing stat I’ve come across: he has allowed more homers in seven MiLB games this year (16 HR) than he did in 25 MLB games last year (15 HR). While there have been a few “unlucky” wall-scrapers, there have been just as many wall-bangers that could’ve flown out with the help of a gentle breeze:
Cueto has an expansive pitch mix including a sinker, four-seamer, cutter, changeup, slider and a break-in-case-of-emergency curveball. He used everything he’s got during his rehab starts and everything was getting barreled. The only mildly encouraging note from Saturday’s Triple-A outing is he averaged 90.7 miles per hour on sinkers and four-seamers combined, slightly above where he had previously been. However, even that falls below his 2022 average (91.4 mph) and would place in the bottom 10% of current major leaguers.
Cueto still has the ability to throw the ball over the plate, topping a 60% strike rate in every rehab start. Consistently down the middle, though seldom on the corners (lousy command). I wholeheartedly recommend him for the 2024 Home Run Derby, if it’s not too soon to apply. Perhaps Adolis García would be interested in hiring him.
Initially, the Marlins will utilize Cueto out of the bullpen, Craig Mish of SportsGrid reports, presumably to mop up in low-leverage situations. Some will say it’s a worthwhile experiment considering how solid the two-time All-Star was only a year ago. Bring him into games that are already out of reach and see if something clicks. If nothing does, part ways once an injured arm like Edward Cabrera, Matt Barnes or Andrew Nardi is ready to come off the IL.
What I’m trying to tell you is that the 2023 version of Cueto is not even qualified for that thankless role. Name a random Jumbo Shrimp pitcher—Devin Smeltzer, Daniel Castano, Chi Chi González, Jeff Lindgren, Enmanuel De Jesús…they are all better than Cueto right now and similarly stretched out. If the Marlins are so underwhelmed by them, go outside the organization for an alternative and show some urgency to improve a roster that’s capable of being the franchise’s best in 20 years.
Including the remainder of his 2023 salary and the buyout of his 2024 club option, Johnny Cueto is owed more than $5 million. The Marlins made a poor investment, but hey, that’s baseball. As much as it would hurt to let a healthy pitcher walk at this stage of the season, they’re tempting fate by enabling somebody who could make their staff substantially worse.
Photo courtesy of johnnycueto47/Instagram