The American League's best team just got stronger. The defending AL champion Royals have acquired Johnny Cueto from the Reds for a trio of lefthanded pitching prospects, a move that provides them with a legitimate ace to front a banged-up rotation as they attempt to surpass last October's surprising run.
Including Sunday's 5–1 victory over the Astros, the Royals own an AL-best 59–38 record and a 7 1/2-game lead in the Central division, but a rotation that last year ranked fourth in the league in ERA (3.60) and third in innings pitched (986 2/3) thanks to the strong work of James Shields and the emergence of both Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy hasn't been nearly as productive this year. With Shields gone to San Diego via free agency and Ventura pitching so poorly (5.19 ERA) that he was optioned to Triple A Omaha last Monday, the unit entered Sunday ranked 12th in the league in ERA (4.30) and strikeout rate (6.1 per nine), and dead last in innings (530).
At their current pace, that would be a shortfall of around 92 innings, and while this year's bullpen is deeper than last year thanks to the additions of Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales and Luke Hochevar to the record-setting big three of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, the staff lacks an obvious Game 1 starter. Reclamation projects Edinson Volquez (3.15 ERA, 3.59 FIP) and Chris Young (3.32 ERA, 4.59 FIP) have both prevented runs at a clip that's at least 20% better than league average, but neither has dominated or pitched deep into games; Volquez is averaging exactly six innings per start, Young just 5.5. Duffy has pitched to a 4.03 ERA with 5.7 strikeouts per nine while averaging just 5.4 innings per start and missing time due to biceps tendonitis. Jeremy Guthrie, who started Game 7 of the World Series, has been rocked for a 5.35 ERA, while Jason Vargas is now heading for season-ending Tommy John surgery, having scattered just nine starts around three trips to the disabled list.
Pitching for the Royals for the first time in six weeks on Tuesday, Vargas retired just four hitters before departing with what was later diagnosed as a torn ulnar collateral ligament, a move that led the team to recall Ventura just a day after his demotion; he actually never left town. The 24-year-old righty threw seven innings of one-run ball opposite the Astros' Dallas Keuchel on Sunday, which could keep Ventura in the majors. Among the team's other in-house options to fill out their rotation, swingman Joe Blanton has been far more effective out of the bullpen than in his four starts, and the recently active Kris Medlen has made just two relief appearances since returning from his second Tommy John surgery in four years. Twenty-five-year-old John Lamb, who has pitched to a 2.67 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 17 starts for Triple A Omaha, is one of the pitchers heading to Cincinnati in the deal, as is 22-year-old Brandon Finnegan, who has made seven starts and four relief appearances for Omaha and the team's Double A Northwest Arkansas affiliate.
Thus the push for Cueto, a move that was so close to completion on Saturday night that the Reds reportedly sent Michael Lorenzen to the bullpen to warm up to replace Cueto for his start against the Rockies. Via the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay:
"He was there in bullpen,” Cueto said. “I told him, ‘what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m going to pitch because you got traded.' That happened 10 minutes before the game.”
According to Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal, the deal was halted at the time because of a medical problem with an unidentified Royal. Under what must have been brain-scrambling circumstances, Cueto made his start and tossed eight innings of four-hit shutout ball, halting a two-start slide that had rekindled concerns about his elbow. Cueto went 13 days between starts in late May and early June as a precautionary measure when he reported elbow soreness.
Cueto's performance was a bittersweet note on which to end his 11-year tenure with the organization that signed him out of the Dominican Republic as an 18-year-old in 2004. Now 29, he helped the Reds to two NL Central titles (2010 and '12) and a Wild Card spot (2013) during his eight big league seasons, maturing into a front-of-the-rotation starter along the way. He placed fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2012 on the basis of a 19–9 season with a 2.78 ERA, and second last year—with his first All-Star berth—while going 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA and a career-best 8.9 strikeouts per nine.
Cueto would likely have been added to the NL All-Star team this year, when the game was in Cincinnati, had the Reds not slotted him to start on the final Sunday before the break, making him ineligible to pitch. Including Saturday's start, he has posted a 2.62 ERA (ninth in the league) with 8.3 strikeouts per nine in 130 2/3 innings; the last of those marks is eighth in the league, as is his 3.2 Wins Above Replacement. Thanks to a career-low walk rate of 2.0 per nine, his 3.12 FIP is a career best.
Making just $10 million in the final year of a five-year, $36.2 million deal, Cueto has been a bargain for the Reds, but he almost certainly would have been priced out of the team's range this winter. At 43–52, the Reds entered Sunday 19 games out of first place in the NL Central and unlikely to get up off the mat. It makes sense for general manager Walt Jocketty to net more than the compensatory draft pick his departure would bring, bolstering the team's farm system while trimming a payroll that sat at a club record $115.4 million on Opening Day according to Cot's Contracts (though an undisclosed amount of cash is being sent to Kansas City to help offset the remaining $3.8 million of Cueto’s 2015 salary). With Jocketty now clearly in "sell" mode, Cueto may followed out of town by starter Mike Leake, closer Aroldis Chapman and outfielders Jay Bruce and Marlon Byrd. Leake will be a free agent this winter, while Chapman has one more year of arbitration eligibility, and both Bruce and Byrd are signed for next season at reasonable prices.
In Lamb and Finnegan, the Reds will have two more options to help round out their rotation. A fifth-round pick from 2008 out of Laguna Hills High School in California, the 6'4", 205-pound Lamb ranked No. 18 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list coming into 2011, one of five Royals pitching prospects to crack the list; Duffy, Mike Montgomery (now with the Mariners) and Jake Odorizzi (now with the Rays) were also among that group. Alas, Lamb wound up needing Tommy John surgery that June. His velocity was slow to return following surgery, and he had a tendency to tip his off-speed pitches by slowing down his arm. In June, The Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough reported that Lamb was sitting 91–93 mph with his fastball, and his changeup had recovered its promise, but that he was still struggling with his arm speed on his curveball. Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo suggested that Lamb would need to add a slider to enhance his chances of success at the major-league level, which may explain why he had yet to be promoted despite strong numbers at Omaha.
Finnegan, chosen with the 17th pick of last year's draft out of Texas Christian University, was the first player from the 2014 draft class to reach the majors, and the first player ever to pitch in the College World Series and the major league World Series in the same season. He debuted with the Royals on Sept. 6 and made seven regular season and seven postseason appearances, all out of the bullpen. This year, he's literally been all over the map, bouncing back and forth between Northwest Arkansas, Omaha and the Royals for a total of eight separate stints. He made 14 relief appearances totaling 24 1/3 innings for the big club, with a 2.96 ERA but a 4.67 FIP; he's walked 4.8 per nine.
Via Baseball Prospectus, Finnegan offers a three-pitch mix featuring a low-to-mid-90s fastball that can go as high as 96–97 in shorter bursts, a slider that flashes plus and a changeup that's solid-average. Concerns about his size (5'11", 185 pounds), stamina and shoulder have led many talent evaluators to conclude that he may be better off in the bullpen because when his velocity dips, the plane of his fastball makes it very hittable, and his stuff has been less effective the second and third time through the batting order. Still, he cracked all the major prospect lists this spring, ranking as high as No. 55 on BA's list.
The third Royals prospect in the deal, 22-year-old Cody Reed, is further away from making a major-league impact. The 6'5", 220-pounder was the team's second-round 2013 pick out of Northwest Mississippi Community College. In 15 starts and three relief appearances split between High A Wilmington and Double A Northwest Arkansas, he has posted a 2.53 ERA with 7.9 strikeouts per nine. Baseball America's J.J. Cooper called him the sleeper of the deal, adding "Great arm/control issues before this year, but made mechanical changes, improved [changeup] to go with 92–97 [fastball]."
At the very least, that appears to be a solid return for the Reds, and it could be a great one if more than one of the pitchers pan out at the major-league level. For the Royals, who have watched Odorizzi and Montgomery (both part of the deal that brought Shields and Davis) blossom into effective big-league starters elsewhere, it's the cost of doing business. Having tasted postseason success after a 28-year absence from October baseball, they're hungry for even more, and with the acquisition of Cueto, their chances of finding it have improved significantly.