Johnny Cueto Is The Marlins’ Silver Lining
11:34 AM EDT on July 23, 2023
Yes, Johnny Cueto is still in the Majors, playing his 16th MLB season at age 37. But this one's been a close call. After a pleasant surprise of a 2022 with the White Sox, who had signed him to a minor league deal in April before watching him post a 3.35 ERA across 158.1 innings, the workhorse pitcher joined the Marlins but got off to a potential career-ending start to the year. At the World Baseball Classic, Cueto contributed to the Dominican Republic's early exit as he allowed three earned runs in two-plus innings when the team was eliminated by Puerto Rico, 5-2. In spring training he couldn't get his process right, allowing 11 earned across 3.2 innings. And in his first MLB start that really counted, back on April 3, he left after one messy inning and hit the IL because of a biceps injury later compounded by an ankle sprain. Working his way back through rehab starts in the minors didn't provide much hope. In six of those appearances, his much-younger adversaries knocked him around for a .353 average and a whopping 33 earned runs across just 29 innings.
When the Marlins brought him back last Sunday, the situation was a decidedly unimportant one—down by five against the Orioles, in a game where they'd already used three pitchers to get twelve outs. But Cueto excelled in this low-stakes spot, looking perfect in his first two innings and leaving two on base in his third. And that success gave Miami enough confidence to make him their starter on Saturday.
I mean, they had to try something. The Fish went into the all-star break at an impressive 53-39, riding the delightfully consistent hitting of Luis Arráez and a blessed record of 21-6 in one-run games to a spot as the second-best team in the National League. But everything has gone wrong since their top players returned from Seattle. Arráez, who briefly had hopes of hitting the .400 mark with his Jackson Pollock spray chart, is down from .390 at the start of this month to .375 now. When guys do get on base, there's barely any power hitting to drive them home—only four home runs in their last eight games. (Jorge Soler, who has double the dongs of anyone else on the team, has only hit two all month.) Sandy Alcántara, the reigning Cy Young winner, has struggled with consistency and hasn't seen any of his last four starts end with a team win. And the one-run magic is quickly evaporating: They've lost three in this eight-game losing streak they're currently suffering through, in part because there's no particular arm in the bullpen they can confidently turn to when they need a shutdown inning.
Cueto's start against the Rockies, then, was the beggars trying to make do with the roster they had. But for six powerful innings of work, they were rewarded by a commanding performance that seemed to make use of every bit of pitching knowledge Cueto had acquired across his hundreds of games. The stats alone sparkle—two hits, one run, one walk, eight Ks—but there was such an intelligence in these outs that it felt more like an evolution than a return to form. The stuff wasn't anything special, as Cueto mixed a fastball in the first half of the 90s with some modest movement. But he did absolutely everything he could to keep hitters off-balance, switching speeds and locations and even the timing of his wind-up to avoid getting figured out.
His body also looked sturdy when he ran into foul territory to catch a little flare-out, and when he started a double play to get out of a jam in the fourth.
“I know the injury was something that kind of paused everything there, but I'm feeling great," Cueto said afterward.
The Miami starter left the game after allowing a single to lead off the seventh, his team holding a 3-0 lead. His replacement, JT Chargois (pronounced shag-wah), gave up a three-run dinger on his third batter, which had Cueto looking shocked in the dugout. Then Tanner Scott, pitching in the top of the ninth, was responsible for a hard-hit single, a hit by pitch, and then a little chopper that escaped the infield and delivered the Rockies a 4-3 victory. Cueto's start was nice, but the reward that should follow such a fun and successful afternoon stayed out of reach, just as it has for the Marlins all through this second half. They're now a game back of the final wild card slot, and 11.5 behind the division-leading Braves.
It must be getting stressful for rookie manager Skip Schumaker and his boys. The Marlins need to get Soler and their power hitting right. They need to get Alcántara and their bullpen improved. And with the toughest schedule remaining in baseball, they need to find a way to rediscover their belief and their ability to produce in tight spots if they want to salvage a season that, at least at one point, held the potential to be their best since 2003. Cueto's flash of brilliance is a bright spot, one that can bode well for their rotation moving forward as long as he stays healthy and the increased attention doesn't help hitters figure him out. But even in a best-case scenario, six solid innings every five games is not enough material to build a contender.