GLENDALE, Ariz. — Veteran right-hander Johnny Cueto can’t help the White Sox now. But the sooner the better.
When will he be ready to go?
“Good question,” manager Tony La Russa said. “Hoping not long.”
That there are questions about the Sox starting rotation a few days before Opening Day is not ideal for a team with championship goals, but so it goes when the expected Opening Day starter needs knee surgery and the starter replacing Carlos Rodon is behind the others ramping up to the season.
Arguably the best free agent pitcher available left from a picked-over pool, Cueto, 36, signed a $4.2 minor league contract late Monday that could help the Sox absorb the loss of veteran right-hander Lance Lynn, who had knee surgery Tuesday in Chicago and will be out at least eight weeks.
Cueto, a big name on the back end of his career, has been throwing and in contact with Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz, who had Cueto with the Giants in 2020 when Katz was an assistant pitching coach.
“He’s had excellent command of three or four pitches that became like 10 or 12 because he had different angles coming at you,” La Russa said. “It’s an exciting move, we’re looking forward to it.”
Cueto posted a 4.08 ERA over 114 2/3 innings last season with the Giants, appearing in 22 games (21 starts). An All-Star with the Reds in 2014 and Giants in 2016, Cueto has finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting three times during his career. He owns a 135-97 record and 3.45 ERA over 14 seasons with the Reds, Royals and Giants.
“Much love to the fans of the San Francisco Giants … thanks for everything. Let’s get to work Chicago,” Cueto posted on Twitter.
The Sox, meanwhile, played their final Cactus League game Tuesday. They’ll work out Wednesday morning while No. 5 starter Dallas Keuchel faces hitters in his final tuneup, then fly to Detroit, have a workout at Comerica Park Thursday and play the season opener Friday.
They go to Detroit smarting from Lynn’s injury and lefty reliever Garrett Crochet needing season ending Tommy John surgery. Both went under the knife Tuesday. The losses of those players, coupled with the short lead-up to this season for pitchers, has the Sox tip-toeing through the first rotation of starters.
Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech will start the first three games in Detroit. La Russa said Keuchel is in the No. 5 slot, leaving the No. 4 undetermined for the home opener next Tuesday. Vince Velasquez is the leading candidate, but La Russa didn’t commit to that knowing Velasquez might be needed in Detroit. Reynaldo Lopez is another option to start and handle multi-inning assignments.
Velasquez, signed to a one-year, $3 million free-agent deal early in camp, struck out five but was charged with two runs in 2 1/3 innings against the Cubs Monday.
“I was excited about what I saw,” La Russa said.
Not so exciting was Kopech, who walked four and gave up two hits and two runs in two innings against the Padres Tuesday.
Cueto seems excited about coming to the Sox. At some point, and as soon as possible, he will build off last season and provide needed innings. He had Tommy John surgery in 2018, missed nearly a month of last season with a lat strain, and also dealt with flexor and elbow strains that year.His workload last season was his biggest since he pitched 63 1/3 innings in 2017, but the Giants bought out his $22 million option for $5 million.
Cueto’s deal, which has a May 15 opt out, will be official when he passes a physical.
“We’ve seen some videos of his workouts and his throwing, but you have to eyeball him,” La Russa said.
“But I know he’s been working. He’s a guy Ethan has had communication with, I think there is something to that. Very positive move for us.”