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Johnny Cueto Proving to be Best Free-Agent SP Signing

Jul 1, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 1, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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Just glancing at the final score of the San Francisco Giants’ Friday night victory, 8-1, might lead one to assume a blowout in which the New York Mets were pushed around all game long. But prior to the Giants’ five-run eighth inning, it was a tight contest, with San Francisco holding a slim one-run thanks largely to the all-star pitcher on the mound.

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Despite a recent slump, Johnny Cueto has, for the most part, been stellar for the Giants this season—case in point, Friday’s seven-inning gem. Cueto carries a sub-3.00 ERA to go with a 14-3 record, started for the National League in the All-Star game, and, while he isn’t a front-runner for the NL Cy Young award at this point, he is in the conversation.

All this has come in his first season with the Giants, during which he is thus far justifying the six-year, $130 million contract he signed in the offseason. To go a step further, Cueto was part of a rather large class of big-ticket free-agent pitchers last offseason; it’s easy to argue he has been the best signing of the bunch.

While Cueto’s resume was as impressive as anyone’s heading into last offseason, he generally wasn’t viewed as the most prized starting pitcher on the market. That distinction went to either Zack Greinke or David Price, depending on who you ask.

Both Price and Greinke signed for more than $200 million. Price’s seven-year deal averages $31 million per year, while Greinke’s is making a tad more than $34 million in of his six-year contract.

While neither Price nor Greinke has performed up to his massive contract, they’ll both probably put up Cy Young-caliber seasons in future seasons.

Amazingly, though, Cueto wasn’t even the third-most expensive pitcher in this free-agent class, at least in terms of annual salary. Jordan Zimmerman received one less year, but is making $22 million per. Cueto’s six-year deal comes in at $21.67 million per year.

So far, Cueto has performed better than all three of them. As for the other starting pitchers who received big free-agent deals, fellow Giant Jeff Samarzija, former Giant Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen and Scott Kazmir have all struggled this year, while Ian Kennedy has been decent.

Rich Hill signing with Oakland proved to be an amazing gamble for the A’s—who traded him last month to the Dodgers. But Hill’s breakout season was unexpected and has come during a one-year deal. So he doesn’t really qualify as a big free-agent signing. Kenta Maeda signed a team-friendly deal with the Dodgers, but he will get paid handsomely as long as he stays healthy. He’s been good this year, but not as good as Cueto.

J.A. Happ is the one pitcher with a case for being a better signing than Cueto. But that depends on how “best signing” is defined. From a team’s perspective, Happ’s three-year, $36 million deal is cheaper annually and covers less years—so the Blue Jays don’t have to worry about carrying the back-end of a fading player’s hefty contract.

Happ’s 17-3 record and 3.05 ERA is probably more impressive in the American League East. While it would be misguided to say Happ is better than Cueto because he has won three more games, it does indicate how valuable he has been pitching against teams such as Boston and Baltimore.

But Happ’s performance might very well be an anomaly.

What ultimately makes Cueto’s season the most impressive among fellow free-agent pitching signees is that he hasn’t missed a beat from his preceding track record. He was one of the best pitchers for several seasons prior to 2016, and he is one of the best this season.

Greinke and Price were among the best for several seasons heading into this season, but they aren’t right now. Happ and Hill are in the midst of strong seasons, but they exactly didn’t have high expectations. Cueto is the only with high expectations who is meeting them.

Next: Have the Real Giants Shown Up

That’s not to say that the Cueto signing will prove to be the best of the bunch when his contract expires. But he sure is off to a great start to making that argument.

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