Blue Jays Have Shown Interest In Johnny Cueto

The Blue Jays made a notable addition to their rotation this week by signing right-hander Chris Bassitt to a three-year deal, but they might not be done. Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reports that the club is open to further additions and have shown recent interest in righty Johnny Cueto.

The club has four rotation spots now spoken for, with Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, José Berríos and Bassitt all locked in as long as they’re healthy. The final spot in the rotation is a bit less concrete, however. The club signed lefty Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year deal going into 2022 but saw him struggle badly, eventually getting bumped to the bullpen and finishing the year with a 5.19 ERA. Righty Mitch White had a 3.70 ERA with the Dodgers when the Jays acquired him at the deadline, but he posted a 7.74 ERA after the deal. Hyun Jin Ryu underwent Tommy John surgery in June and won’t be an option until the second half of the season even in a best-case scenario. Nate Pearson was once one of the top pitching prospects in baseball but he’s been limited by various injuries to less than 50 innings in each of the past three seasons. Given all that uncertainty at the back end, it’s unsurprising that a win-now club like the Jays would be open to adding a stable veteran.

Cueto, 37 in February, surely fits the bill having pitched in each of the past 15 MLB seasons with a career 3.44 ERA. One of the best pitchers in baseball earlier in his career, he’s falling from those incredible heights but has proven himself to still be quite useful of late. He dealt with injuries and was barely able to pitch in 2018 and 2019, then struggled in the shortened 2020 season. However, he’s had a solid return to form in each of the past two campaigns.

With the Giants in 2021, he tossed 114 2/3 innings with a 4.08 ERA. His 20% strikeout rate was a bit shy of average, but his 6.1% walk rate was quite strong. He reached free agency after that campaign and lingered on the market after the lockout. He eventually signed a minor league deal with the White Sox in early April, though one that would pay him a prorated $4.2MM salary once in the majors. After getting built up to a starter’s workload, he made it back to the big leagues in May and eventually tossed 158 1/3 innings for the Pale Hose with a 3.35 ERA. Similar to the year before, he didn’t rack up the strikeouts, finishing with a 15.7% rate. However, his control was even better, as he walked just 5.1% of batters faced. He got grounders on 42.6% of balls in play and limited hard contact, coming in the 67th percentile in terms of hard hit percentage and 69th percentile in terms of average exit velocity.

Given Cueto’s age, he will likely be limited to a one-year deal but he should still earn a decent salary. He’s coming off a stronger platform than he was one year ago and the market for starting pitching has been quite strong overall this year. The free agent market still has a few surefire starters in Carlos Rodón, Nathan Eovaldi, Noah Syndergaard and Michael Wacha, but Cueto is one of the more attractive options outside of that group. Others include Corey Kluber, Drew Smyly and Drew Rucinski.

Notably, the Blue Jays are now positioned to pay the competitive balance tax for the first time in franchise history. The recent signings of Bassitt and Kevin Kiermaier have nudged the team just barely over the $233MM threshold, according to Roster Resource. It’s always possible that they could make a trade that puts them back under, but it seems possible the club is willing to stay over the line by season’s end. If that is indeed the case, then perhaps they are willing to spend a bit more to add Cueto or someone similar to their pitching staff. Nicholson-Smith relays that president Mark Shapiro recently said that the CBT is “not an obstacle” for ownership. “The support and the growth of that payroll is unprecedented in the history of the franchise and it continues to be very strong.”

It’s unclear how high they plan on taking the payroll, but they appear to be targeting areas other than the rotation. Nicholson-Smith reiterates their known interest in outfielders and adds that they have been showing interest in “high-upside relievers” even after acquiring Erik Swanson in the Teoscar Hernández trade earlier this winter. No names are listed as specific targets, but some of the top relief names on the open market are Taylor Rogers, Andrew Chafin, Adam Ottavino and Michael Fulmer. Nicholson-Smith adds on Twitter that it’s possible the Jays are more likely to add in the bullpen than the rotation, despite the interest in Cueto.

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