Perusing the blogosphere and the twitter, reactions to the Johnny Cueto trade have been very mixed.  Some have hailed the three left-handed pitching prospects as a good haul for Cincinnati’s former ace.  Others, however, have felt the deal fell well short of the mark they’d hoped to see for the best Reds pitcher since Jose Rijo.

Redleg Nation writers have already written great profiles on the three prospects that are now part of the Reds organization through this deal.  Therefore, please refer to those articles for in-depth biographical and analytical information on the new players:

Brandon Finnegan, LHP, 22 years old by Grant Freking

Cody Reed, LHP, 22 years old by Jeremy Conley

John Lamb, LHP, 25 years old by Kevin Michell

The question I want to try to address is whether the return the Reds received matches what we should have expected given Cueto’s combination of excellence and limited team control.  Michael Maffie did something similar to this last July when the Reds were rumored to be considering trades of their starters, but I’ll take a somewhat different approach.

To start, I combed through transaction records (via mlbtraderumors) of the past four seasons in search of trades that met these criteria:

  1. The trade featured an established, quality starting pitcher traded mid-season, who was bound for free agency that offseason (i.e. less than a year of control).
  2. The return for the starter was primarily prospects.
  3. Any cash and/or salary changing hands was modest and not critical to understanding the deal.

Therefore, I am not including trades like last July’s Jeff Samardzija or David Price deals (both pitchers had more than a year of control left), the Jon Lester/Yeonis Cespedes deal (Cespedes was a major leaguer), or a salary dump like the Josh Beckett/Adrian Gonzalez/Carl Crawford Dodgers/Red Sox deal of 2012.

For each deal, I tried to find close-to-timely projections for major league players, and prospect ranks/ratings for the minor leaguers.  When possible, the projections were in-season ZiPS projections, or ZiPS projections dated as close to the trade date as I could find (sometimes from the following offseason).  In a few cases, I had make my own projection using a quick and dirty approximation of the Marcel method because I couldn’t find any old projections online or on my hard drive for that player.  Prospect rankings were usually from the preseason prior to the trade, but when possible I used mid-season rankings and ratings.  Scouting ratings (explanation, scale) are those provided by Kiley McDaniel at FanGraphs, which are unfortunately only available for players since fall 2014.


The list is sorted, roughly, by value changing hands.  Despite going back four seasons, there haven’t been a lot of deals that fit the criteria.  The two best pitchers were unquestionably Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto.  The two were extremely similar at the time they were dealt, to my eye.  Both were starters with an established track record of excellence and were just beginning to be recognized throughout baseball as legitimate ace pitchers.  The only real separator, if there is one, is injury risk.  Greinke, to my recollection, did not have any significant injury issues in 2012, having fully healed from a fractured rib he suffered during the 2011 preseason while playing basketball.  Cueto, though apparently healthy, has missed a few games this year due to a balky elbow, which reportedly did make some teams nervous.

Once you get past those two, the rest of the names are a collection of mid-rotation starters.  Some have continued to be solid pitchers (Peavy, Garza…sort of), while others have collapsed since their trades (Nolasco and Masterson).

If you look at the returns, they largely mirror those tiers.  Here’s how I’d rank them.

Best Return: Jean Segura, John Hellweg, and Ariel Pena for Zack Greinke

I think this is the best return of this list.  Jean Segura was the #2 prospect in the Angels system because their #1 prospect was a guy named Mike Trout.  Segura was immediately ready to contribute as a big-league regular shortstop.  The other two pitchers, Hellweg and Pena, were also on the Angels’ top prospect list.  They haven’t panned out thus far, and Segura seems to have stalled after a nice rookie campaign in 2013.  Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer that you have to judge a trade based on the information you have at the time.  Three top-10 club prospects, including one #55 prospect, is a nice return.

Close Behind: Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed, and John Lamb for Johnny Cueto

This is really close to what the Brewers got for Greinke.  Finnegan was also the Royals #2 prospect, and (amazingly) was also ranked as the #55 prospect in baseball in the preseason.  He’s a pitcher, though, and as such I’d definitely rank Segura over him at that same point in their careers.  Nevertheless, Finnegan is a very well-regarded prospect.  And the others are all legitimate players who are close to big-league ready.  Reed is a rising star, and seemingly has taken a big step forward this season.  That is reflected in his emergence as the #9 starter on the BA midseason Royals prospect list.  Lamb could end up being nothing more than a #5 starter.  But he has pedigree, he’s ready for the major leagues right now, and reports have it that his velocity might actually have finally returned after it abandoned him for years following Tommy John surgery.

Probably third: Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, C.J. Edwards, and Neil Ramirez for Matt Garza

On the surface, this return looks competitive with first two.  Mike Olt was a top-tier prospect heading into the 2013 season, with the best overall prospect ranking of any prospect on our list (#22).  But as 2013 began, he started encountering vision issues that led to troubles at the plate (.213/.317/.422 in AAA in 2013 with the Rangers).  Similarly, Justin Grimm was already 24, and had struggled in the first half of the season in the Texas rotation.  Therefore, both players had seen their value dip at least to a degree since their preseason rankings.  Matt Garza, of course, was not on the level of Greinke or Cueto, so we’d expect the return to be less.  If your scouts still believed in Mike Olt–and it’d be hard to convince me at the time that they should have abandoned hope–then this seems a good return for Garza.

Tied for Fourth: Jacob Nottingham/Daniel Mengden for Scott Kazmir, and Edwin Escobar/Heath Hembree for Jake Peavy

In the case of Peavy, the return looks better on the surface than it was.  Escobar started the 2014 season as a top-100 prospect, but struggled badly.  By the 2015 preseason, he was off those lists, and barely even earned a mention in Kiley McDaniel’s deep prospect post on the red sox at #24.  The Kazmir trade featured the opposite phenomenon: Jacob Nottingham has drastically improved his stock this season compared to preseason rankings, edging onto the Astros BA prospect list by midseason at #9.  So, we have one deal for a falling upper-tier prospect, and another for a lower-tier guy on the rise.

Solidly Fifth: James Ramsey for Justin Masterson

The Indians sold Masterson while he still had at least some value.  He hadn’t thrown particularly well in 2014, but his very solid 2013 season was still fresh in the Cardinals’ memory when they acquired him.  He’s pretty much been bad ever since.  They paid for him with James Ramsey.  He was a middle-tier prospect, but he’d always hit, and was in the midst of something that looked like a breakout season while repeating AA at the time.  His scouting reports weren’t overly strong, but he looked like he could be a regular outfielder at the time Indians got him…and probably, at worst, the left-side of a platoon.

Barrel-diving: Angel Sanchez, Steve Ames, and Josh Wall for Ricky Nolasco

Maybe the market already knew Nolasco was on his way out?  It’s hard to understand why this deal netted so little.  Nolasco has always posted good peripherals, and didn’t seem to be in a notable decline when he was dealt.  Therefore, I’m a bit surprised at the return.  Sanchez was still a starter, but would soon spend the 2014 season bouncing through waivers until Pittsburgh finally picked him up (I think I saw him pitch a game in Altoona last year).  Ames and Wall were both bullpen arms.  None were prospects of any particular note, all ranking in the 20’s among Dodgers prospects prior to the trade.  Nolasco actually pitched well for the Dodgers down the stretch in 2013, but has since imploded after signing with the Minnesota Twins that offseason.


It seems clear that the return for Johnny Cueto was pretty fair, given what the market has been paying for rental starters over the past several years.  If I had the choice, I would have preferred the return that the Brewers got for Greinke, based on what we knew at the time of the deal.  But given that Brandon Finnegan and Jean Segura were ranked at exactly the same spot in BA’s prospect rankings, someone who was really sold on Finnegan’s stuff could probably argue otherwise.  Furthermore, Cueto brought with him some degree of injury risk that was less of a concern with Greinke.  And, frankly, there has been discussion among journalists (whether or not they’re correct) that the market for rental players is getting weaker every year.  Therefore, for the Reds to fall within a few breaths of the Greinke return seems reasonable.  I’d expect that the Reds went with this deal because it was the best offer they received, based on their evaluations of the players.

The Cueto return does look better than every other trade deadline return for a rental starting pitcher from the past four years.  While it’s not the most likely scenario, there’s a legitimate chance that each of the three starters the Reds acquired could be a valuable member of the Reds’ rotation by 2017.  None of them is likely to ever be the kind of pitcher Cueto was, but this is a substantial infusion of talent at a position where the Reds have been looking pretty weak.

[You can read more of Justin’s posts at his blog: On Baseball & the Reds]

33 Responses

  1. Tom Gray

    I like the trade A LOT. Three good prospects, all LHP who can start or relieve.

    In exchange for 2 months (12 starts) of Cueto, who was NOT going to re-sign with Reds.

    Kudos to Walt Jocketty (et al).

    • Nick Carrington

      Agreed, Tom. Jocketty deserves praise for this deal. While I think he has struggled signing helpful free agents and filling out the back end of the roster, he has seemingly done well with trades as the Reds GM.

      • Tom Gray

        He did very well with trades at STL too.

        I don’t see the Reds as a destination for many FA other than fringe players. FA usually means big $$$ and the Reds are short on that (for FA).

        He hired Dusty as manager and that worked out, too. 3 playoff appearances (in 4 years) for first time in 15 years.

      • Jeremy Conley

        Jocketty was actually down on Dusty and neve rwanted him as manager. Dusty was hired before Jocketty.

        Also, Dusty was maybe the worst manager in baseball while he was with the Reds.

      • reaganspad

        None of us wanted Dusty. He came to the team by default.

        And you see the teams clamoring for him to be their manager now……

        Long list, 20-25 teams. shocked he hasn’t taken a job yet

      • Tom Gray

        I like Dusty. 3-time NL MOY. Led 3 teams into NL playoffs. Far from perfect. But better than most recent Reds managers (post Jack McKeon anyway).

      • Tom Gray

        Dusty has the best W-L record of any Reds manager since Davey Johnson, I think. Maybe McKeon, not sure.

      • Nick Doran

        Dusty arrived here just in time to ride the rising tide to the playoffs. The reason the Reds started to win when Baker came to town was because of all the new players who came in at the same time: Cueto, Votto, Bruce, Bailey, Frazier, Cozart, Leake etc. The Reds dumped Griffey and Dunn and the horrid pitching staff and replaced them with a ton of elite young players and that is why they started winning, not because Dusty and Walt came in after all the new players were already in the system. I explained all this here:

    • Nick Doran

      I agree that Jocketty did a good job on the trade. I don’t think it was a steal by any means though. I mean, is it really that difficult to get a good return for the best pitcher on the market? Selling Johnny Cueto is easy. Getting good value for the likes of Leake, Byrd, Pena and perhaps others will be a better test of Jocketty’s trading acumen.

      • greenmtred

        The beat goes on, doesn’t it? Dusty wasn’t good, just lucky that he had good players. It’s not easy to find successful (good) managers who DON’T have good players, as Sparky Anderson would likely have attested. All managers, successful and otherwise, make tactical decisions that we armchair managers rail at, and I certainly railed at Dusty a time or two. But it is unfair and irrational to credit the players for any success during his tenure and blame him for any failures. He didn’t play an inning for the Reds.

      • kywhi

        Well said. The irrational disrespect of all things Dusty by some continues to amaze.

  2. reaganspad

    not a walt fan, but this trade looks good to me. Worst case scenario, our bullpen is stocked for years to come and this trade filled a current team weakness. I say that because there will be the sorting of Cingrani and other lefties in the system to properly align our staff

  3. Big56dog

    Lamb is the intangible, he was a top 20 prospect in all of baseball in 2010. Given that projections do not necessarily mount to much in reality, if he was a talent that was derailed by injury and is currently pitching at high level, AAA All-star, then he still could be perceived as a pseudo top tier prospect. Lots of top tiers still mak ethe majors nd have impact although they are not necessarily All-stars. Of course all of them could be a bust but if you get even 2 of these guys to be bottom end rotation its a steal. If Cueto does not help them win the World Series, then most Royals fans will consider this deal awful.

  4. jamesgarrett

    Not a fan of Walt but this a good trade.Three young power arms that are left handed is a great haul.Could start or work in relief.He found a trade partner that is all in for this year.Now go out and find another and see what Leak or Chapman may bring

  5. Grant Freking

    Nice job. And welcome to RN!

  6. Jeremy Conley

    Nice writeup Justin. I wasn’t that wild about the trade when I thought that Finnegan was the only real player of value. Looking at it more closely, I think the difference between the Brewers deal and the Reds deal is that the prospects the Reds got back are more closely bunched in talent, while Segura was significantly more valuable than the others at the time of the trade.

    • Justin inhisbasement (@jinazreds)

      Agreed about Segura dominating his trade, although they were all in the Angels’ top-10. Finnegan is definitely the headliner of the Reds’ deal, but the other guys aren’t chopped liver. They definitely push the value of the package up close to the Segura deal.

  7. jdx19

    I greatly enjoyed the perspective of this article… and the figure. I’m a sucker for figures!

  8. Carl Sayre

    Advanced statistics is my shortcoming so I like anything that goes beyond BA, ERA or OBP. I am more a seat of the pants guys so you youngsters who can put it into a valid argument using numbers I enjoy. Thanks for the article.

  9. Tom Reed

    WJ and company did a good job on this trade. It’s nice to have an infusion of left handed pitching in the Reds organization.

  10. Farney

    How do compensation picks play into this? I know for the reds they had to get back at least a comp pick of value, and the royals don’t get or lose a pick for the rental. That’s fairly new tho– how was it in 2012 when Greinke went?

  11. unc reds fan

    I agree the reds got a good haul for cueto, however, the fact that this organization still values pitching over hitting should continue to be a major concern…I agree one thing that made the greinke haul better was getting a position player…

    • Justin inhisbasement (@jinazreds)

      The counterpoint is that the Reds have Bailey and…. who knows for 2016 on. Lorezen’s fielding-independent numbers are a disaster, and how is ERA is too. DeSclafani is below average on all his peripherals (though not as bad). Cingrani is in limbo. Iglesias and Robert Stephenson might pan out. Our might not.

      I’m not saying they have a luxury of a vast pool of position player prospects. Just saying there was a ton of question marks with the rotation. There still are, but now there is a lot more depth. This is an organization that still has a lot of work to do.

      • Matt

        Agreed – and if you look at the numbers for this year as an example, we’ve actually been decent at scoring runs, even with Mesoraco out for the year. It’s on the pitching side that we’ve been awful. The bullpen is a huge part of that, but rookie starters as well.

        To compare with the best-record-in-the-NL Cardinals, they’ve scored 397 runs and allowed 291. We’ve scored 389 and allowed 439. It’s pretty clear on which side we need more improvement. And that’s WITH Cueto and Leake.

        I know before Meso went down this year, I was thinking how scary the heart of the order of Votto, Frazier, Meso, Bruce would be for opposing pitchers, and we still have all those guys for another 2 years. Add Winker in left and Suarez (or hopefully 2015 Cozart) at short and we’ve got a pretty good offense for at least the next couple of years.

      • IndyRedMan

        You’re not considering park differentials though? The Cards are +8 on the Reds in runs scored….that’s prob about an 70 run difference if you factor in GABP and their park which is a pitchers park. We need to score a lot more runs! Pitching wise….I think the Cubs broadcast said the other night that we lead the NL in walks allowed (or maybe the majors)….either way that ain’t good:(

      • Justin inhisbasement (@jinazreds)

        @Indyredman, GABP is a hitter’s park, but it’s not Coors Field.

        GABP’s park factor (3-year regressed) is just 1.01 at FanGraphs. In past years, it’s been 1.02, though, so let’s use that. The Reds have scored 389 runs thus far, so we’d estimate they’d score 381 runs in a neutral park.

        Busch Stadium has a park factor of 0.98, so it’s a modest pitchers’ park. Taking a 381-run team there should, on average, result in their run scoring to drop to 373 runs. So we’re looking at something more akin to a 15-run gap between the parks.

        As for the walks…yeah, 2nd-worst walk rate in baseball to only the Rockies!

    • greenmtred

      Recall, if you will, the Dunn era when the Reds valued hitting over pitching.

  12. mtkal

    I think Walt did something in this trade that is one of my favorite strategies for this type of trade. You get at least one solid talent like Finnegan and add in another guy or two that while talented has had some issues that lowered their value in a way that you hope will be only temporary. For instance a player like Lamb who had TJ surgery, but has shown good signs of coming back well from it. Or like Reed who only more recently has shown some results that start to reflect his raw talent.
    I’m certainly not in favor of Walt being the Reds’ GM long term, but if he can get us through this trade deadline and any post waver trades after that with more work like this trade, he could be like Cueto and Leake (assuming he’s dealt), going out with one last really good outing.

  13. Justin inhisbasement (@jinazreds)

    Postscript: David Price just got traded. I would probably rank Price slightly behind Cueto and Greinke (at the time of his deal), but I’m guessing you’d find those in industry who would prefer Price too. Price doesn’t have Cueto’s injury risk.

    The haul, according to:
    Daniel Norris, LHP, Blue Jays #1 prospect, #18 in minor leagues, 60 FV at fangraphs
    Jairo Labourt, LHP, Blue Jays #12 prospect w/ 45 FV during preseason
    Matt Boyd, LHP, Blue Jays #29 prospect w/ 40 FV during preseason

    Another all-lefty prospect return! Crazy.

    Assuming the grades are “correct,” would you take a 60-45-40 FV return or a 55-50-40 FV return? I lean toward the return with the better marquee player, so I probably like the David Price return better. But if you believe There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect (which no one does literally, but there’s something to it), then you might take the Reds’ return. Thoughts?