Even after signing Jeff Samardzija to a large, long-term contract last week, the San Francisco Giants had their eye on Johnny Cueto — they've been watching and admiring him from afar for years.
The Giants' upgraded rotation sure is taking shape, with the 2014 World Series champions agreeing Monday with Cueto on a $130 million, six-year contract to add another top-tier starter.
"Johnny has always been, and rightly so, very high on our list ... high on our short list," Giants general manager Bobby Evans said. "He's somebody we've admired for a long time."
Cueto is set to join a rotation led by left-hander Madison Bumgarner and new addition righty Jeff Samardzija, who was introduced Friday after formalizing his $90 million, five-year contract — one week after the team lost out to the Diamondbacks on Zack Greinke.
Cueto turned down a $120 million, six-year contract from Arizona late last month. The Giants began talks with Cueto's representatives during last week's winter meetings in Nashville.
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Cueto's deal was pending a physical, the team said, and contains a team option for 2022. Cueto is expected to travel from the Dominican Republic on Tuesday to the Bay Area and take a physical Wednesday. He is likely to be introduced later this week at AT&T Park.
Under the agreement, Cueto can opt out after the 2017 season and become a free agent again. He is due to earn $46 million before the opt out. If he exercises that clause, he would hit the market one year before the 2018 free agent class, which could include Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and David Price.
A 29-year-old right-hander, Cueto went 11-13 with a 3.44 ERA in 32 starts for Cincinnati and Kansas City, which acquired him in a trade July 26. He was 4-7 for the Royals in the regular season and 2-1 in the postseason, including pitching a two-hitter that gave Kansas City a 2-0 World Series lead over the New York Mets.
"He's not a guy that you relish facing," Evans said. "You have a guy who has a chance to be an elite presence in your rotation if he's healthy and we can play good defense behind him and use our ballpark to our advantage. Johnny has upside beyond his 2015 final numbers."
Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija will be joined in the rotation by Matt Cain and Jake Peavy. Chris Heston, who pitched a no-hitter last season as a rookie, is expected to be on the major league roster with his role to be determined during spring training.
"We're going to very much need Cain and Peavy at their best," Evans said. "Hopefully with these two significant additions it gives us a balance of five guys that can give us the starts and innings we need to protect our bullpen and give us the best chance within our division to compete for the division. That's the goal."
Cain said in an email that adding Samardzija and Cueto was "huge for our team" and that he respects their ability to pitch deep into games.
"I'm looking forward to being in the rotation with these guys," he said. "It's great to know we'll have a solid rotation in the upcoming years."
Samardzija agreed Dec. 5., less than a day after Greinke joined NL West rival Arizona on a $206.5 million, six-year contract. He is eager to help the Giants compete for another championship in an even year — 2016 — after San Francisco captured titles in 2010, '12 and '14. The team missed the playoffs last season.
Earlier that first week of December, David Price received a $217 million, seven-year contract from the Red Sox.
Now, Cueto is the latest big-name free agent pitcher to land a large contract.
Samardzija appreciates how these pitchers who work every fifth day are being rewarded.
"It's not easy what we do. I think a lot of it from afar is simple, right, you see it on TV, it goes over a plate," he said. "Eight other guys catch it, whoop de do. I challenge anybody that wants a slice of what Price made, or a slice of what Greinke made to come on out and throw a ball over the plate at 96 mph to Carlos Beltran and see what happens. It's a tough sport."
When it comes to San Francisco's search for a left fielder, Evans said, "it continues to be an area we'll give attention to and see where we land."