They say good-byes come in waves. That’s been true in my experience. I’m bracing for another one. The Reds ‘ place in the standings and the harsh financial reality of baseball will conspire to produce a tsunami of farewells. With news breaking today that the club has traded Johnny Cueto to Kansas City, it’s started.
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In March 2004, the Reds under general manager Dan O ‘Brien signed Cueto as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic. It was just a month after the right-handed pitcher had turned 18. He signed for $35,000. That’s hard to comprehend today considering Raisel Iglesias inked a deal for $27 million. Cueto’s agreement was one of the Reds first moves to remedy the neglect the organization had shown to its Latin American operation under general manager Jim Bowden.
The Reds had Cueto pitch in the Dominican League that first summer. He then moved quickly through the club ‘s minor league system, playing rookie ball in 2005 and advancing to Class A Dayton in 2006. Cueto recorded 82 strikeouts and 15 walks in 76 innings for the Dragons, an outstanding ratio he would repeat throughout his minor league career.
In mid-2006 Cueto was promoted to Class A Sarasota. It was there former Reds pitcher Mario Soto taught Cueto a change-up. Cueto spent 2007 in Sarasota and AA Chattanooga. He earned a handful of late-season starts at AAA Louisville.
Despite Cueto ‘s impressive minor league numbers, concerns lingered about his size and durability. Many scouts felt Cueto could have used more time at AAA, but the Reds were desperate for starting pitching in the spring of 2008 (remember Josh Fogg?). So Johnny Cueto, at age 22, made the major league roster out of spring training. It was the Reds first year under skipper Dusty Baker.
I attended Johnny Cueto ‘s debut. He faced the Arizona Diamondbacks at GABP, a team that had won the NL West the year before. But the short haired Cueto was perfect through the first five innings including eight strikeouts. He finished completing seven, surrendering just one hit, no walks and recording 10 strikeouts.
That’s the day Reds fans began to fall in love with Johnny Cueto.
In 2010, Cueto pitched 185 innings for the Reds NL Central championship team. That rotation featured Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez, Mike Leake, Aaron Harang, Homer Bailey and Cueto. Dusty Baker chose to start Volquez in Game One of the NLDS and Arroyo in Game Two. Johnny Cueto pitched the first five innings of Game Three, giving up just one run, as the Reds were swept.
By 2011, Cueto had established himself as an excellent major league pitcher, although his low strikeout rate continued to concern analysts. During the 2011 season, Cueto began experimenting with a new delivery that featured a Louis Tiant-style twist. The approach was successful in countering a tendency Cueto had to fly open and fall off the left side of the mound.
Sadly, Cueto’s new move also brought injury. In September 2011, he strained a muscle in his back that forced the Reds to shut Cueto down for the rest of the year, six innings short of qualifying for the National League ‘s ERA title.
In 2012, Cueto pitched 200 innings for the first time and led the Reds to their second NL Central division championship in three years. He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. Cueto was chosen by Baker to pitch Game One of the NLDS in San Francisco.
Eight pitches. Eight lousy pitches into the start, Johnny Cueto walked off the mound. The collective gasp from Reds fans could be heard from Cincinnati to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Cueto then spent the 2013 season struggling to cope with his new delivery and recurrence of the oblique injury. He went on the disabled list three times in 2013, pitching only 60 innings. Cueto was forced by convoluted circumstances to start the Reds wild card play-in game in Pittsburgh. That ‘s when he dropped the ball, literally and otherwise.
As the 2014 season began, it was a wide open question whether Johnny Cueto could stay healthy while using the twisting mechanics that seemed vital to his development in 2012. The answer turned out to be an emphatic sÃƒÂ. Cueto was able to moderate his delivery enough that he could stay healthy and keep taking the ball from another new manager, Bryan Price. At the same time, the 5 ‘8Ã¢â‚¬Â pitcher also became an elite starter. In 2014, Cueto led the National League in innings pitched, games started, strikeouts and the lowest number of hits given up per 9 innings. He finished second in the Cy Young vote.
Cueto ‘s 2014 was a breakthrough season and he ‘s followed it up as expected with another dominant performance through the first half of 2015.
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Johnny Cueto made 213 appearances for the Reds all as a starting pitcher.
Cueto has earned about $35 million for those 213 games. That’s a lot of Bob Castellini’s money, but the value Cueto provided the Reds would be worth roughly $130 million on the open market. As Cueto moves into not-so-free agency this fall, we ‘ll see just how much Johnny Beisbol is worth. He’s been so good that he priced himself out of the Reds consideration. But before then, Cueto has offered another bit of value to his first organization. A few months of his labor brought the Reds three promising left-handed pitchers with 18 years of major league control.
I still believe what I wrote last October Ã¢â‚¬â€œ that not signing Johnny Cueto to his next contract was the right thing to do. The best hope for medium payroll teams like the Reds is to develop talent, take advantage of homegrown players through their late 20s-early 30s. As they become high-priced stars, the clubs have to ship them away or let them leave. And that’s not easy.
But the Reds simply have to let players like that leave and become bad contracts for big-stack teams. Crazy-enormous free agent contracts for 30+somethings are among the most important reasons the correlation between payroll and payoff is at an all-time low. The Reds shouldn ‘t pay $30 million AAV for a starting pitcher in his 30s, even though they could.
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As we celebrate Johnny Cueto ‘s grand success in Cincinnati, remembering the difficulties he experienced in his early seasons offers valuable insight for thinking about Michael Lorenzen, Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesais, Tony Cingrani and other young Reds pitchers.
Cueto struggled with consistency his first two seasons. His ERA and FIP for 2008 (4.81/.4.90) and 2009 (4.41/4.69) were the product of problems with control, pitch selection and pitch count that are typical for young pitchers. It wasn ‘t until his fifth year with the Reds that Johnny Cueto would pitch 200 innings.
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Trades like this afternoon’s leave fans with strong but mixed emotions.
It ‘s tough when a player we admire leaves. We ‘ve cheered for and defended them without condition. We ‘ve worn the t-shirts and jerseys with pride. Our loss will be driven home every time we see them suit up in another uniform. Collective angst will be off-the-charts if Cueto takes the mound for the Royals August 18-19 in Great American Ball Park.
Deep down, we accept that baseball, like other professional sports, is a business first and foremost. We use that truth as a way to rationalize, a way to make sense of it.
The oft-asked question is how can parents explain to their kids when a favorite player is traded. But it ‘s not just kids that need to work through the answer to that question. It ‘s we adults, too.
For kids, ball players are role models for adulthood, like teachers, fire fighters, soldiers, etc. For adults, favorite players are specific parts of the broader psychology of being a sports fan. Beyond simple excitement, favorite players offer us identification, escapism and belonging. For kids, favorite players are about growing up. For adults, they let us look back to our childhood. Favorite players are the toys of our adulthood.
It ‘s been that way for many of us with Johnny Cueto. We ‘ve swooned over his determination and dreadlocks (not to mention that glorious slider). We ‘ve agonized over every ¦ twist ¦ and turn of his career. We ‘ll miss the confidence Johnny Cueto gave us every fifth game. And we ‘ll miss the implicit, weekly proof that a dynamic player, packed into a small frame, can be large in stature.
But as Reds fans say adios to Cueto and this wave of Reds players, we ‘ll greet their replacements with open arms and raised, cheering voices. The good news is there are always more to come. We are drawn to Reds players because of proximity. Regardless of where we live, we make it a point to be with the team every day. The next favorite player – and the one after that – will come along as surely as that 18-year-old from San Pedro de Macoris.
Gracias, Johnny Beisbol.