PHOENIX - At some point Thursday afternoon, Bruce Bochy will likely take a seat in the visitor's dugout at Chase Field and tell reporters that Johnny Cueto's Tommy John surgery was a success. That's the way it goes with surgery in sports. Just about every procedure is announced as "successful" right away, but it doesn't actually mean much.
The truth is the Giants won't know Cueto's true timetable for a while. These days, it's normal for a pitcher to miss just 12-14 months while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and often times he will return to form quickly after he completes all the steps, but there are sometimes bumps in the road.
There are major exceptions, as the Giants learned with one of their own prospects recently. Ian Gardeck, a hard-throwing right-hander, had Tommy John in 2015 and then went under the knife a second time while working his way back. The human body was not meant to throw a baseball 90-plus mph over and over again every five days, leading so many elbow ligaments to fray and tear. The Giants must simply hope for the best with Cueto, and recent history shows that he should be back with plenty of time to prepare for the 2020 season. It's possible he'll return next year, too.
The most recent Giants big leaguer to have Tommy John was Will Smith, and he came back in a shade over 13 months. If Cueto hits the same marks, he could be back in time to throw a few September innings for the 2019 Giants.
The list of starters who have had Tommy John in recent years is long, and while there are horror stories - Arizona's Shelby Miller made it back in about 14 months but is now back on the DL with right elbow inflammation - there are also plenty of successes. Yu Darvish had Tommy John on March 25, 2015 and was back on May 28, 2016. Homer Bailey, Cueto's former teammate, made it back to a big league mound in just under 15 months. Jason Vargas was just about Cueto's age when he had TJ and he was back in 13 months. Andrew Heaney of the Angels was one of the more recent big arms to have the procedure, and he was back in 13 months.
The Giants will leave the window open for Cueto to return in September of 2019. While Cueto is 32, he does have one big factor working for him. He is among the most creative pitchers in the game, and with his elbow hurting in April, he still found a way to post a 0.84 ERA. When he returned, the results were subpar overall, but Cueto still had stretches of starts where he was able to gut through the pain and get consistent outs by locating his changeup and slider. He is high on the list of pitchers you would choose to return to form quickly.
If Cueto gets back to full health, there's no reason to think he won't be able to return to some semblance of his All-Star past, shimmying and quick-pitching as he always has. Tommy John has a high success rate thanks to modern medicine, and the Giants should be able to extract value out of the final two years of Cueto's six-year, $130 million deal.
In an odd way, the value they get in the fourth year - 2019 - may depend on every Giant except Cueto. If the Giants are in the race next year, you can bet Cueto will try to return and help in September. If they are not, there's absolutely no reason to rush the rehab, and Cueto can shut it down until the spring of 2020, when he will have had nearly 18 months to recover.