Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Giants’ Johnny Cueto is horse of a different color

Johnny Cueto is a bit of mystery around the Giants’ spring training compound, which is curious considering how important the Dominican right-hander is to San Francisco’s hopes this season.

Cueto’s limited English masks the soul of a free spirit who is as passionate about horses as he is about baseball. Like other Dominican players, Cueto actually uses his native language of Spanish – and the need of an interpreter – as a shield to keep the insanity of big-league ball at bay.

All most see of him are those ubiquitous dreadlocks, that easy smile, a well-fed frame and those crazy Instagram pictures and videos he shares with the world.

He’s a 30-year-old puzzle who disappears in a Giants clubhouse of icons. While Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Hunter Pence and Brandon Crawford move about like aircraft carriers in a lagoon, Cueto would be stealthy if not for the loud colors he dons daily.

You take in the whole picture and think: This is the guy the Giants bet the farm on by signing him to a six-year, $130 million deal in the winter?

From Day One, Cueto’s contract raised eyebrows among a baseball press that questioned investing so much in a pitcher some worry is damaged goods.

“Look, I’d be worried about Cueto’s (right) elbow,” wrote David Schoenfield, ESPN senior writer, when the megadeal was announced in December. “He’s also missed time with other non-arm injuries in the past.”

Cueto famously tweaked his back in the first inning of Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs against the Giants, when he was a Cincinnati Reds ace. He left the game after recording only one out and his absence for the remainder of the series was cited as one reason the Giants upset the Reds.

Last season, while Cueto finished the regular season with the Kansas City Royals, his sore elbow was blamed for a 4.76 ERA. In the postseason, Cueto hovered between great and terrible.

In Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in Toronto, he was historically bad.

“(Toronto fans) chanted this after Cueto had left the game, his night finished, by any measure turning in one of the worst starts in more than 100 years of playoff baseball,” wrote Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star. “Cueto was terrible. Worse than terrible, really. Baseball-Reference’s database goes back to 1903, and includes no record of a starting pitcher ever giving up eight or more earned runs while collecting six or fewer outs in a playoff game before Cueto. The man made history here.”

But then in Game 2 of the 2015 World Series, Cueto notched a complete-game win, the first by an American League pitcher since 1991. He held the New York Mets to one run and thoroughly outdueled Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

That’s the Cueto the Giants expect for their money. He is expected to be nothing less than the Giants No. 2 starter behind Madison Bumgarner.

He is expected to be like the Reds pitcher who won 20 games in 2014. Since 2011, Cueto’s 2.71 ERA is the second lowest in the majors, behind only Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Hailing from San Pedro de Macrois, the famous factory of big-league shortstops, Cueto – who stands 5-foot-11 – was thought to be too small to be an ace pitcher.

The Reds took a flier on him. Like many Dominican prospects, Cueto signed as an amateur free agent in 2004 for relative peanuts – his signing bonus was $35,000. He swallowed his loneliness in the minors for three seasons before getting the call to the bigs in 2008.

He’s never let his family out of his sight since. His brother, Danilo, is almost always with him. He bought a farm – and about 25 horses – outside San Pedro de Macrois.

“But two of them are really good,” he said of his prized possessions that he displays on his Instagram. The photos are pure comedy.

“The horse appears to be taking a walk through its little fenced-in enclosure,” wrote SB Nation last season. “Meanwhile, Cueto is riding this horse while dressed as if he just went for a jog after starring in an elementary school Christmas pageant.”

In the image, Cueto is is wearing an an eye-popping red shirt and wild-colored shorts.

Said Cueto: “I’ve loved horses since I was a boy. I used to ride them, whether they were mine or not.”

“Now I just want my fans to see who I am,” he said.

Who is that?

“I’ve loved baseball since I was a boy. I’m always happy. I always have my family with me.”

Is his goal to win 20 games for the Giants?

“My goal is to stay healthy, and we’ll see what plan God has for me.”

Nothing fazes him, not even getting drilled in the side of the head by a comebacker in his first pitch in Monday’s exhibition game against the A’s. Cueto didn’t suffer a concussion, and Giants officials seemed far more rattled than he was. When asked if he had ever been struck by a baseball before, Cueto didn’t wait for his interpreter.

“Hell, no,” he told reporters in English, leaving his translator and reporters laughing.

Such is Johnny Cueto: You never know what you are going to get.