After Wednesday afternoon’s eight-inning gem against the Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds’ right-hander Johnny Cueto is the proud owner of a dazzling 2.54 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP over 15 starts and 104.2 innings. Since the start of the 2014 season, he has a 2.43 ERA and 0.95 WHIP over 348.1 innings, winning 25 games and making the Reds and their fans wonder if they invested in the wrong arm when the club signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million deal in February 2014, especially with Bailey on the shelf after Tommy John surgery.
Now, the question becomes – where does he end up?
For fans who want him to stick around, it remains very unlikely for the club to re-sign their ace. After watching Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw cash-in, Cueto will be the second best option in free agency (3rd if Zack Greinke opts-out) to Tigers’ left-hander David Price this winter. He should easily eclipse $25 million annually, as teams like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels will be looking to fill holes and become more unreasonably deep (on paper) than their counterparts. If (or when) Cueto leaves through free agency, the Reds would receive a compensatory draft pick, which is no sure thing to develop into a star.
Therefore, trading Cueto for prospects continues to be the club’s best option. The club would receive quality, close-to-ready prospects in return. While those players are no sure thing to develop, either, it would provide the club with talent that could be plugged in immediately, or sooner than later, to begin the organization’s rebuilding process. While it seems painful to trade away a talent and watch him lead another team to success, it is even harder to see him walk out the door and leave fans and the club with nothing but a view of his backside. Imagine being a Cleveland Cavalier fan when LeBron James left for Miami and knowing that he wasn’t coming back – as it isn’t likely that Cueto would ever opt-out and sign for less to return to Cincinnati. The agony!
The Cueto Quandary has hurt Reds fans deeply because he is a homegrown talent. Signed in 2004 as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic, Cueto only spent 358.1 innings in the minors before making his debut, at the age of 22, in 2008. He gradually became more successful before injuries derailed his ability to rank right alongside the best pitchers in baseball. In 2011, he made the jump to ace-caliber production, only to have his season start and end with shoulder issues. He was healthy in 2012; however, he developed the same injury that he had to finish the 2011 season in 2013, which limited him to just 11 starts. Finally pitching a full season again in 2014, Cueto reached career-best numbers in innings (243.2), strikeouts (242), and hits per nine (6.2, which led MLB), while receiving his first All-Star game appearance and finishing 2nd in NL Cy Young voting. Since the start of the 2011 season, this is what Cueto has done:
58-30 (117 starts), 2.53 ERA (3.36 FIP, 153 ERA+), 1.05 WHIP, 782 IP, 667:199 K:BB, 7.1 H:9
Losing this kind of homegrown talent only reminds Cincinnati of how hard it has been for the club to develop their own arms. Outside of Mario Soto, the Reds haven’t found much success when it comes to signing international free agents and developing them – unless you count Aroldis Chapman here. You have to go back nearly 50 years to get to Gary Nolan (drafted in the 1st round in 1966) and Jim Maloney (amateur free agent signee in 1959), to find pitchers who were signed and developed by the Reds and found as much success as Cueto has in his eight seasons with the Reds.
Perhaps that pain is why it is so hard for Bob Castellini and Walt Jocketty to pull the trigger on a deal. After the club shipped off right-handers Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos this winter, it shouldn’t have been long before Cueto was dealt, as well. With the Reds toiling in mediocrity, 36-41 (six games out in both the NL Central and Wild Card), is now the right time? For a team whose longest winning streak (four games) occurred in the first four games of the season, there may not be a better time. Cueto is pitching well, he is healthy, and he continues to pitch himself out of the Cincinnati budget.
There may be another Cueto down the line in Cincinnati, but the Reds went from June 16, 1988 until April 3, 2008, all of 7,231 days, before Soto become Cueto, so expect another lengthy wait for the next real ace in Cincinnati. For a team that seems to be unable to develop their own pitching talent, the Cueto Quandary is a difficult dose of reality. Say your goodbyes and hope for a great return. “Johnny Beisbol” will be pitching for another team at some point this month.