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Since the start of 2010, Johnny Cueto has 993 2/3 innings pitched, a 2.72 ERA, and a 3.45 FIP. Over that span, the only hurler with even 500 innings whose ERA has been better than his FIP by a wider margin is the Orioles’ Miguel Gonzalez. We’re well past the point, of course, where that kind of gap indicates that a pitcher is due to regress or start giving up more runs. Cueto has demonstrated a true talent for limiting opposing hitters’ batting averages on balls in play: opponents have a .239 aggregate BABIP since the start of 2013. He gets ground balls, he avoids hard contact, and with that windup in which he turns away from the batter, he achieves deception hardly anyone can match.
All of that will go really nicely with Cueto’s new home park, and with the skill sets of his new teammates. The Royals’ remarkable defense (third in Defensive Efficiency this season, ninth in the park-adjusted version of the same stat) should only augment all of the things that have made Cueto unique and dominant for years. Ditto for Kauffmann Stadium, which is slightly less hitter-friendly than the Great American Ball Park, and specifically, much, much less homer-friendly. The fit between team and player couldn’t be much better.
That’s not to say, though, that Cueto needed to find a good fit in order to thrive down the stretch. What’s most impressive about him, perhaps, is that he’s no longer reliant on those unique knacks for inducing weak contact. Since the start of last season, Cueto has racked up over 370 innings, and has fanned 24.5 percent of opposing batters, while walking only 6.4 percent of them. His numbers in six seasons prior thereto: 18.6 percent strikeouts, 7.4 percent walks. Some of that, surely, is Cueto being buoyed by the ever-expanding strike zone, which is giving pitchers control of the zone in a way they’ve never had it before. Still, it’s impressive, and when you combine it with all the other things Cueto can do, you get a pitcher with a 2.51 ERA in 808 innings over the last four and a half years.
Nor is skill set the only way in which Cueto is a perfect fit for the Royals. Kansas City is headed, it seems, for a fairly easy AL Central title, but they have to make this season count even more than that. After this season:
- Alex Gordon seems sure to decline his player option for 2016 and become a free agent;
- Alex Rios and Jeremy Guthrie have mutual options on their deals that seem unlikely to be exercised;
- Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Edinson Volquez, and Jason Vargas all get substantial guaranteed raises on their multiyear deals; and
- Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Greg Holland hit arbitration again, with more earning power than ever, all coming off very strong seasons.
The Royals seem to have only just arrived at the top of the American League mountain, but their stay might not be that long. The players named above are not only getting expensive; they’re not as young as they might seem to be. With such a clean look at a second straight deep run into October, Dayton Moore would have had very little excuse for not making the most of this season. Next season is promised to no one, but it seems especially uncertain for Kansas City.
There’s no doubt that Kansas City’s greatest vulnerability was (and probably still is, even in light of Cueto’s addition) starting pitching. This deal addresses that superbly, and it also avoids forfeiting huge future value for a longer-term asset who might not have as much utility in a year or two (like Cole Hamels). Not only that, but by getting the Reds to kick in a chunk of the $3.3 million still owed to Cueto, Moore has kept his budget flexible in case some other opportunity presents itself. Maybe he’s already maxed out, but if so, that only makes targeting and acquiring Cueto that much savvier a move. David Price, to name one possible alternative target, is owed roughly twice what Cueto is, and the Tigers might not have been as able (or willing) to absorb some of that obligation as were the Reds.
This doesn’t fix every imperfection on the Royals’ roster. Theirs remains a top-heavy lineup with some real clunkers at the back end. Their rotation was dreadful before this trade; it is now merely below average. Defense and relief pitching remain the formula for success, and that’s a hard formula with which to find consistent, sustained success. This was probably the best addition the Royals could possibly have made, though, and the best deal they could have gotten in the process. Moore looks brilliant here. —Matt Trueblood
There aren’t too many cases where a pitcher moving from the National League to the American League would warrant a bump up in fantasy. But beyond the obvious win opportunities down the stretch, Cueto now gets the benefit of a park boost from Great American to Kaufmann Stadium, as well as the terrific outfield defense behind him, even with Alex Gordon on the shelf. That said, this is a marginal bump; Cueto is a must start in all formats, and a #1 pitcher even in 10-team mixed leagues. If you are considering how much FAAB to offer in AL-only leagues, the answer is to smash open that piggy bank.
He had a solid start today, but given the fact that the Royals has recently demoted him, Ventura is probably the guy who gets bumped – at least in the short term – for Cueto. If you were hoping for some sneaky deeper mixed value from Ventura, you’ll have to put those hopes on hold, at least for the next couple of weeks. —Mike Gianella
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Acquired LHPs Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed for RHP Johnny Cueto and cash considerations. [7/26]
Zack Greinke and Matt Garza are the two real measuring sticks we have for top-tier starting pitchers traded in the run-up to free agency during the Qualifying Offer Era. Here are the returns they each netted:
- Greinke: from Milwaukee to Anaheim for Ariel Pena, Johnny Hellweg, and Jean Segura.
- Garza: from Chicago to Texas for C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez.
Given what Cueto is right now, he certainly should have commanded more than Garza, and at least as much as Greinke. Did he? It really depends on what one makes of Finnegan. Lamb’s prospect sheen is long gone, though his value is on the rebound this year as he establishes health and command. Reed was a second-round pick in 2013. If Finnegan becomes a dominant reliever or a mid-rotation starter, that’s a nice return. If his uneven usage in his pro career to date dooms him to inconsistent development or pushes him into a relief role to which he never truly takes, it’s a soft return. Time will tell. The Reds had to move Cueto, though, and taking this move as part of a set (with the deals in which they traded Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon over the winter), it’s a good one. Cincinnati is making progress toward a real, much-needed rebuild.
Finnegan's changeup is obviously going to be the separator there, as far as any hope of starting goes. It's a genuinely strong pitch, able to generate whiffs and ground balls against right-handers in its limited exposure to date. He has an excellent sinker/slider combination, although neither have yet passed the MLB test in more than a single trip through the order. If he can wield that change as a weapon against righties in larger samples, he's a starter, and probably a good one. If he can't, he's stretched, and the Reds will have to hope he can find the extra tick or two of velocity he would need to be a guy they could use to replace Aroldis Chapman.
Finnegan's size and stamina draw many into doubting he'll be able to turn over lineup cards and sustain his stuff consistently. On Cincinnati's very different timetable, though, he should get a long audition to prove himself (or not). The problem, at the team's end, is that the Reds don't have a great track record when it comes to giving promising, unorthodox lefties a chance to start. —Matt Trueblood
Reed was one of my favorite hurlers coming out of Northwest Mississippi Community College in 2013, and after struggling mightily to throw strikes in 2014, he appears to have taken a step forward this spring. He’s 91-93 with his fastball while occasionally touching the mid 90’s, and the pitch plays up because he’s able to get downhill from his 6’5” frame. Like Finnegan, he’s death to left-handers because of his low arm-slot, but unlike him, the secondary stuff isn’t nearly as advanced, with both the slider and change looking closer to 45 offerings at this point. The improved control gives him a chance to start, but of the three arms acquired, this is the one who is the most likely to end up in the bullpen.
The wild-card here—if there is one—is Lamb; a pitcher who at the beginning of the decade was considered one of their best prospects in the system, but really struggled to put anything together after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in 2012. The stuff that made him an elite prospect hasn’t come all the way back, but scouts tell me that Lamb has shown flashes of brilliance in 2015. He works with a 90-92 mph fastball, and he still possesses a plus change that has excellent deception from arm speed with some downward movement to it as well. The curve will never be much more than a 45 offering—and he’ll likely need to add some velocity to it. The key is the development of his cutter, which many scouts attribute his 2015 step forward to. If it can continue to be another weapon for him, he stands a good chance to be a competent back-end starter.
Again, this isn’t the sexiest haul, but getting three arms that work and can help you in the next couple of years is a pretty solid return for a pitcher that wasn’t going to come back, and two of them could pitch in the Reds rotation as soon as next year. —Christopher Crawford
Cingrani pitched in a spot start for the Reds this past week, so he’ll probably get the first shot at filling Cueto’s clown-sized shoes. Cingrani is a long shot to do more than provide NL-only value, but he was a significant strikeout source in 2014 and at a minimum you should keep an eye on him for softer deep mixed league matchups. Cingrani goes from being a zero in fantasy to a match up play, which technically qualifies as a bump up.
Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb
It isn’t clear if/when Finnegan and Lamb will be up, but at some point both could play a role for the 2015 Reds. This wasn’t as clear for either pitcher on the Royals, but with the Reds auditioning players for 2016 and beyond, it doesn’t take much imagination to see either pitcher throwing major league innings for the Reds this year. Finnegan is well known, but don’t sleep on Lamb, who has improved significantly this year after battling arm injuries in the past. —Mike Gianella
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