PHOENIX -- With each bullpen session he throws, injured starter Johnny Cueto is moving closer to rejoining the San Francisco Giants pitching staff.
With each day Cueto spends at the Giants' minor league complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., the veteran pitcher is helping to change an important part of the organization's culture.
Cueto, 33, left the Scottsdale complex Saturday to throw a 40-pitch bullpen in front of Giants coaches and trainers at Chase Field in Phoenix and expressed confidence that he'll pitch in the major leagues this season.
"I feel really good and obviously if I'm able to pitch in September, I'd be really happy to be back with the team," Cueto said through Spanish language translator Erwin Higueros.
Fewer than 11 months after undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Cueto touched 88 miles per hour on the radar gun in a session that left manager Bruce Bochy impressed.
"I'll tell you, he's close," Bochy said. "He was hitting 87-88 and that's in a bullpen session. Usually your adrenaline isn't going that high where you're going to have that kind of velocity. He looks like he's on his way."
Is it realistic to expect Cueto to start games for the Giants this September?
"I'd be surprised if he didn't," Bochy said.
Cueto is throwing two bullpen sessions a week and began throwing all three of his off-speed pitches during Tuesday's bullpen session. Last month, he threw an all-fastball bullpen in front of the Giants' staff at Chase Field and reported that his arm felt healthy and strong.
Following Saturday's session, Cueto was even more encouraged with his progress.
"I feel a lot better," he said.
The Giants have missed Cueto's presence on the mound this season, but their $130 million investment in the veteran pitcher isn't being wasted. Instead of collecting checks and easing his way through a challenging recovery process, Cueto has spent much of 2019 taking many of the franchise's international prospects under his wing at the minor league complex.
Life can be lonely for teenagers who have recently arrived in the United States, but Cueto is helping dozens make the adjustment. He's leading group workouts, hosting group meals at a Scottsdale rental house and most importantly, he's taking a genuine interest in the futures of young Giants prospects with major league dreams.
"All of the guys that are at the minor league complex, I have taught them how to throw my changeup," Cueto said. "They're doing it the way I'm teaching them and they're all giving me feedback that they're feeling really good."
Cueto can't tell you the name of every prospect he's worked with, but they all know him. The right-hander is one of the most accomplished major league pitchers in Dominican Republic history and an icon in his home country.
In Arizona, Cueto isn't just a pitcher in the same organization as players with dreams of playing at the highest level. He's their mentor.
"It is very important for me," Cueto said. "That's my personality. Even here at the highest level, I try to work with the guys, try to teach them. I just want to share and give."
Rodolfo Martinez, a hard-throwing right-hander from the Dominican Republic, struggled miserably at Double-A Richmond this season and recently came back to Arizona to pitch for one of the Giants' Rookie League teams. Cueto talked with Martinez about pitch grips and learned that Martinez was gripping his slider like a sinker.
Martinez changed his grip and reported an immediate improvement.
Cueto said when he arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic as a member of the Cincinnati Reds organization, he would talk with fellow Latin American pitchers like Francisco Cordero and Edinson Volquez, but he never had a leader to follow.
In what could have been a lost season for Cueto and the Giants, the right-hander has devoted his time to giving dozens of impressionable young players guidance. His work isn't going unnoticed, either.
"I think Johnny providing the leadership that he is with these kids, that's invaluable," Bochy said. "These kids hopefully if they make it, they'll do the same thing."
In the coming weeks, Cueto will take the next step in his recovery process and graduate from the minor league complex. After throwing live batting practice in July, Cueto hopes to pitch in rehab games with Giants' affiliates in August.
If his recovery continues according to plan, Cueto will spend September in the Giants' rotation, giving the club reasons to view the final two years of his contract with optimism.
There's no question the Giants will be better when he returns. So will many of the prospects Cueto worked with along the way.
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