SF Giants: Atlanta Braves may be trade partner for Johnny Cueto

SF Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SF Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images) /

Could San Francisco Giants ace Johnny Cueto be just what the Atlanta Braves need for a deep postseason run?

The future of the 2020 Major League Baseball season is largely up in the air. Multiple teams have already faced COVID-19 outbreaks on their rosters and forced the league to remake their schedules. Given all the uncertainty over the season, it’s hard to know what the Aug. 31 trade deadline will look like.

Roger Munter over at There R Giants (subscription recommended) has suggested that teams will be tentative to make trades given the added risk of virus spread, the uncertainty about whether the season will finish, and the inability to make more money from fan interest since fans aren’t allowed at stadiums. I remain somewhat inclined to agree, but we’ve seen a decent number of minor transactions already, including by the Giants.

If the season is still going by the end of August, the chances are pretty favorable that the season will go to completion. At that point, I imagine some front-offices around the league will still go for it all. Whether or not fanbases put an asterisk on a championship, general managers will always be able to put a ring on their resume.

The Braves were primed for a deep playoff run this season. After winning the NL East in 2018 and 2019, Atlanta was once again the divisional favorite, but the team has still failed to win a postseason series. General manager Alex Anthopolous has shown time and time again a willingness to make the big move when he sees a championship in his sights.

SF Giants and Atlanta Braves have traded before

Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi took advantage of Anthopolous’ aggressiveness at the 2019 trade deadline. Zaidi offloaded reliever Mark Melancon’s mammoth contract and recouped prospect Tristan Beck.

When Braves ace Mike Soroka suffered a season-ending Achilles injury on Monday, the window opened for another trade between the two organizations. The Braves starting rotation was already missing veteran southpaw Cole Hamels and according to reporter Joe Patrick, the team had already been engaged in preliminary trade talks.

While nothing appears around the corner, it’s hard to envision the Braves going into the stretch run without a notable addition. Given the current state of the Giants rebuild, Johnny Cueto seems like the perfect fit.

The Giants probably won’t be too far removed from the back of the playoff picture. Especially since the league expanded the playoffs in both leagues. However, Zaidi has shown a willingness to sacrifice the moment for a worthwhile return. The Braves seem like the best fit to do that.

Since the Giants slowly ramped up their starters this season, it’s a bit unfair to compare Cueto’s numbers to other starters. Cueto has flashed his old self but hasn’t exactly dominated either. In 12.2 innings, Cueto has struck out 11 batters, but walked 6 and has a 4.97 ERA.

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Cueto’s contract is guaranteed for a $21M salary in 2021 and includes a $22M team option with a $5M buyout. As good as Cueto has been at his best, that contract isn’t going to have many takers, even if he does flash his prime 2016 form over the next few weeks.

If the Giants offer to cover half of Cueto’s remaining guarantees (about $14M over the next three years), he becomes a very intriguing target. Even if he doesn’t return to his ace form, but remains a solid innings eater, a $10.5M salary in 2021 is a reasonable sum.

The Braves are flush with pitching prospects who’ve been at their upper-minors, but none have taken advantage of many opportunities and it seems like most may be destined for the bullpen. Since most teams are probably going to be in playoff contention, the Braves are unlikely to have many teams too keen on selling, making Cueto an even more desirable option.

2 SF Giants trade suggestions for the Atlanta Braves

SF Giants trade Johnny Cueto (Giants cover 40% of guarantees) and Rico Garcia for Bryse Wilson and Thomas Burrows

The Braves would add a cost-controlled reliever in Garcia to help further solidify a Braves bullpen full of former Giants (Will Smith and Mark Melancon). Even then, this trade probably only happens if the Braves are low on Wilson. He’s a legit 50-future value prospect who seems worthy of a big-league rotation spot. It’s worth noting that the Braves have yet to promote him in 2020, which may suggest they aren’t as high on him after two disappointing stints in 2018 and 2019.

Burrows is a left-handed reliever who works off a premium slider and profiles as a middle-reliever. Given the Giants bullpen woes, he may make an intriguing addition as they try to narrow down their long-term options.

Alright. Let’s get weird.

The Braves do have another glaring hole at third base. Johan Camargo has taken huge steps back since his breakout in 2018. At this point, it looks like he may just be a one-year wonder. At the same time, after Austin Riley was absolutely tearing the cover off the ball in his first month of big-league ball, he’s performed like a below-average hitter since. While he hit 18 home runs in 2019 he struck out in over 35% of his plate appearances and is only putting up a .115/.172/.269 triple-slash line so far this season.

If both the Giants and Braves were willing to make a bold move at the deadline, they might make sense for a massive blockbuster involving Cueto and another established veteran.

Johnny Cueto (Giants cover 60% of guarantees), Evan Longoria (Giants cover 50% of guarantees), and Trevor Gott for Austin Riley, Tucker Davidson, Huascar Ynoa, and Thomas Burrows

Cueto slots into the Braves starting rotation. Gott gives manager Brian Snitker another legitimate high-leverage arm out of the pen. Longoria immediately solves their problems at third base. Longoria is under contract through 2022, but the Braves would only be on the hook for $8.25M in 2021 and $8.75M in 2022 (the Rays previously agreed to cover $2M a year in salary).

The Giants would be agreeing to cover a substantial amount of salary (roughly $18.3M for Longoria and $17.6M for Cueto), but would also clear an additional $30M from their books as well. Obviously, the loss of Gott would hurt their bullpen, but they are far more than a reliever away from contention. Most importantly, they’d bring in a substantial haul of talent.

Riley was a top-100 prospect as recently as last season. For a time there, he looked like a candidate for rookie of the year. Obviously a lot has gone wrong for him since then and he may even need some time in the minor leagues (or in summer camp) to figure things out. While he’s under a lot of pressure in Atlanta, the Giants can afford to be patient with him. He’s still just 23 and has all the tools to be a legitimate middle-of-the-order slugger.

Ynoa was a 21-year old who debuted in 2019 with the Braves. Ynoa has a mid-90s fastball and a potential three-pitch mix that could make a mid-rotation starter. With that said, he needs to refine his command quite a bit and won’t be able to help a big-league club this season. He probably is more likely to end up in the back of a bullpen, but still has an intriguing skill set for the Giants to develop. He’s a solid 40+ future-value grade prospect.

Davidson would be the biggest catch of the pitchers (45-future value grade). He has the pieces of a really good three starter. A potential plus-fastball and curveball are his trademark pitches, but his slider and changeup could become average offerings as well. He’s a couple of years older than Wilson (24) and has only made 4 starts above Double-A, but he seems to have taken the steps toward being a big-league contributor.

The Braves may have some pretty strong payroll limitations, but it’s worth noting they’d be on the hook for less than $5M in salary for the three additions between the Giants portion and proration of their salaries.

Next. Astros might make good trade destination for Cueto

If the Braves and Giants want to add a little spice to the trade deadline, both teams line up in many ways to make a potential move. The only question now is will they find a value that both sides can agree to.