It’s time to trade Johnny Cueto.

If you’d told me that at the end of the 2014 season, I’d have called it blasphemy. If you’d said it after the Mat Latos/Alfredo Simon deals, I’d have urged you to have faith – that Walt Jocketty has a plan. Jocketty insinuated as much himself in his interview with C.Trent Rosecrans after the Winter Meetings. But after the Marlon Byrd trade, I’ve changed my tune. After the Marlon Byrd trade, my biggest takeaway is that the Reds should trade one of the best homegrown pitchers in team history. And they should do it soon.

The Reds aren’t going to contend in 2015

I’ve seen numerous calls for optimism in recent days. What I haven’t seen is a reason for said optimism.

The 2014 Cincinnati Reds were a fourth place team. There are plenty of things we can blame for that: Mat Latos’s freak injuries, gimp knees on Jay Bruce and Joey Votto and the overactive right arm of third base coach Steve Smith. And certainly, those were all factors. But the fact of the matter is that the 2014 Cincinnati Reds were paper-thin contenders from the beginning – the kind of team that could afford very few of the season’s breaks to go the other way if they wanted to stay in the hunt.

That those breaks went disproportionately against our Redlegs could make one think that the Reds are due for a rebound this year. After all, Jay Bruce can’t be that bad again. The bullpen has to be better. Non-tendering Logan Ondrusek alone should move things in that direction. And all of that time off had to do JoeyMVP some good, right?

I’m inclined to believe all of the above. And I still think the Reds will be lucky to be in the hunt when they host the Midsummer Classic.

The Cubs have gotten better. The Pirates have gotten better. And the Cardinals have done what they do best: identify weakness and move to plug the holes. Did any move embody the Cardinal Way more than quickly trading for Jason Hayward? The Cardinals always find ways to get better.

It would be hard to argue that the Reds have gotten better. Today, Cincinnati has 3/5 of a very solid starting rotation, and two “Let’s hope someone shows something in camp” spots on the back end. Save for the aforementioned addition-by-subtraction, the bullpen is largely the same cast who turned the 7th and 8th innings into raging dumpster fires last season. And an offense for which “anemic” may have been too kind a word in the back half of 2014 will be buoyed by a healthy returning cast and … Marlon Byrd — a 38-year-old outfielder who projects below average for 2015. Technically, this qualifies as an improvement, because Skip Schumaker was the bar.

Am I saying that the Reds have no chance to compete in 2015? Not exactly. Professional sports are weird and it’s always possible that the other teams in the division will get the 2014 Reds’ share of bad luck while everything breaks the right way in Cincinnati.

But playing odds that slim isn’t how you build long-term success. Which means the Reds should start thinking about how to win in 2016 – a time when they won’t have Johnny Beisbol.

The Reds will not re-sign Johnny Cueto

And I don’t think they should.

I know how hard homegrown pitching is to come by, especially in Cincinnati. I remember talking myself into Elmer Dessens and Jimmy Haynes as #1 starters, and I have no desire to go back to that era in Reds’ history.

But for the foreseeable future, the Reds have a large chunk of cash tied up in Joey Votto and Homer Bailey and, for about three years too long, in Brandon Phillips. Adding another blockbuster contract – one that will probably have to be the largest of the three, at least, on an average annual basis – isn’t how a small market team puts a competitive product on the field. Add the inherent risk in any long-term contract (see: Votto, Joseph) and stir in a tablespoon of Cueto’s injury history, and the risk of extending Cueto doesn’t make sense for this team. Let someone else pay for the Cueto great-grandchildren’s college education.

Those are the reasons why I don’t think the Reds should re-sign Cueto. The reasons why I don’t think they will are much the same. Put simply, the Reds can’t afford the kind of contract Johnny Beisbol will command – not if they want field another 24 men who will keep the team competitive in the 80 percent of games Cueto doesn’t pitch.

The Reds are going to lose Johnny Cueto after this season. If they are not going to win this season, then it makes sense to trade him now. Now, he’s coming off a Cy Young-worthy season. Now, he’s healthy. Now, his market is at its peak.

Will that still be the case in July, if the Reds opt to give the early season a go before making any decisions? Maybe. Or maybe the toll from leading the NL in innings last year will show up early. Why chance it?

Trade Cueto high today and do a minor rebuild in 2015.

The Reds can win in 2016

As I said above, I believe Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will bounce back.

I believe Devin Mesoraco is a stud entering his prime. I believe Todd Frazier will remain better than average, though we probably are seeing his best years right now. And I believe Billy Hamilton will continue to improve until he’s the leadoff man the Reds envisioned.

But I also believe Billy needs this year to continue to grow into that role. I believe Jesse Winker is a year from being the stud left fielder the Reds have been looking for. I believe a few months in AAA working on his arsenal will make Tony Cingrani a successful Major League starter, and that by 2016, he’ll be entrenched in the Reds’ rotation alongside Homer Bailey, Robert Stephenson, Lorenzen/DeScialfana/Crawford and a newly-extended Mike Leake.

And I believe we need to look at 2015 as the year that bridges the Reds to that team. It’s the year they focus on maturing the young guys. On finding ways to fill the holes that will still exist, like the one we’ll see at 2B when age finishes its inevitable thrashing of Brandon Phillips.

Trading Johnny Cueto should be part of that bridge – the part that lands us a young second baseman or shortstop that can hit his body weight. Cueto’s asking price has never been higher.

It’s time to put him on the block.