Watching Johnny Cueto pitch for the KC Royals again would be fun. That's because watching Johnny Cueto pitch is always fun: one never knows what his windup, or any other part of his motion for that matter, will look like, or which component of his eclectic arsenal he'll let fly on any given pitch.
And the notion of the Royals reuniting with popular former players like Cueto has its own appeal. Cueto became a fan favorite in his brief half-season with the Royals in 2015, a status he achieved by helping help the club to a World Series title and his unique pitching style.
Much to the disappointment of Kansas City fans, Cueto left Kansas City for San Francisco after that campaign. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA for the Giants and led the National League in complete games in 2016, but injuries took their toll and he won only 21 games in his last five seasons with San Francisco. But he improved last year to 8-10, 3.35 after joining the underachieving White Sox and being called up from the minors in mid-May.
Cueto is back on the free agent market and remains unsigned. Should the Royals be interested in his services?
The KC Royals don't have enough rotation room to bring back Johnny Cueto.
Kansas City, a team needing to improve its pitching perhaps more than any other club in the majors, signed big league free agents Jordan Lyles, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Wittgren and Mike Mayers last month and, while Wittgren and Mayers will head to the bullpen, Lyles and Yarbrough seem destined to begin 2023 in the starting rotation.
Because Brady Singer is a lock for the rota and Daniel Lynch is likely to join him, one spot remains for Cueto if Kansas City signs him, leaving none for Kris Bubic, Jonathan Heasley, Brad Keller (if KC keeps him and gives him another shot at starting), and others to compete for. The Royals have too many younger starters (Cueto turns 37 in February) who must prove themselves one way or the other next season; blocking one or more of them makes little sense.
And let's not forget Zack Greinke. Although re-signing him appears less likely than it did when last season ended, the Royals' interest in him probably hasn't waned. They won't sign Greinke and Cueto, and likely prefer Greinke considering his longer history with the franchise and his mentoring of KC's other pitchers in 2022.
Johnny Cueto isn't the pitcher a club like the KC Royals should pursue.
His 2021 season with the White Sox provides ample evidence that Cueto can still pitch. The Royals, though, aren't the White Sox: Chicago isn't rebuilding, but Kansas City still is, and Cueto is a pitcher better suited for a contender than a team that isn't going to compete for at least another season, if not two,
No, Cueto is tailored at this point in his career for mid-rotation or backend duty on a club with realistic postseason aspirations. He's a proven winner of big games and that, together with an extremely pitcher-friendly market this winter, puts him in a price range the Royals shouldn't consider until they're better, especially because Cueto is closing in on the end of his career, 2023 will be his age-37 season, and his San Francisco injury history (blisters, sprained ankle, right elbow inflammation, right elbow strains, latissimus strain) should give Kansas City pause.
Would the prospect of returning to the KC Royals even interest Johnny Cueto?
This is, of course, an important question to which, considering a reunion with Kansas City from Cueto's perspective, the answer might well be "No."
At this point in his good career (143-107, 3.44 ERA and trips to the postseason with the Royals, Giants and Reds), it wouldn't be surprising to discover Cueto is more interested in playing for a contender than not. Although his thoughts aren't specifically known, and compensation and contract length can make a difference, expect Cueto to sign with a club that can win now. That the Royals cannot do,
Kansas City shouldn't take a run at Johnny Cueto.