Royals get their ace in Johnny Cueto

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AUGUST 2015 – Rene Francisco, the Kansas City Royals vice-president/assistant general manager in charge of international operations, was a Los Angeles Dodgers scout in 2004 and eyeballed a teenage right-hander in the Dominican Republic.

He was unimpressed. He did not recommend the Dodgers sign him.

“I didn’t remember him,” Francisco said.

Although he was short, listed generously at 5-11, the Cincinnati Reds liked him enough to offer him a contract in 2004, signing him for $35,000.

“I know who he is now,” Francisco said.

The pitcher was and is Johnny Cueto, who the Royals acquired to be their ace in a trade with the Reds, sending them three left-handed top-tier prospects – Brandon Finnegan, who was the Royals’ 2014 first-round pick and is the first player to appear in the College World Series and the Major League World Series the same year; John Lamb and Cody Reed.

Cueto went 15-3 with a 3.00 ERA in three minor league stops in 2006 and 12-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 2007 in the minors. By the time he was 22 in 2008, he was a fixture in the Reds’ rotation.

He went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 2012, finishing fourth in the National League Cy Young Award balloting. He was even better in 2014, going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA. He led the National League with 34 starts, 243 2/3 innings, 242 strikeouts and 6.2 hits per nine innings. He finished second in the Cy Young voting.

Only Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw has a better ERA than Cueto’s 2.51 since 2011.

The Royals lacked a true No. 1 starter with Yordano Ventura going through sophomore growing pangs and not quite ready to fill that role. James Shields bolted to San Diego as a free agent after a productive two years in Kansas City, teaching the Royals how to win.

surplusexchange.orgEnter Cueto, who is truly deserving the ace mantle, something the Royals have lacked since 2009 and dealing Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course the return for Greinke included Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar and the Royals would not be where they are today – in first place in the American League Central and the defending American League champions – without those two.

Cueto has an exaggerated delivery, more on that later, and a notable tresses. USA Today named Cueto to their 2014 MLB All-Great-Hair Team. He has brown dreadlocks with a tinge of red in his goatee.

He delivery includes turning his back to home plate and wiggling his hips. It is a distraction to the hitters and a deception, making it difficult for them to pick up the ball until it is nearly upon them. He throws his pitches from different arm angles, making it even more difficult. He will quick pitch and other times have a snail-pace motion, disrupting the hitter’s timing.

While Cueto’s fastball reaches the mid-90s mile per hour, he also throws a slider, mixes in a cutter, has a slow curveball and adds a nice changeup. He is an inventor on the mound, always tinkering, adding and subtracting.

Cueto’s time in Kansas City will likely be very brief, but the Royals hope will extend them again deep into October. He is a rental, who will almost certainly entertain multi-year contracts for $100 million plus in November. A ballpark figure the Royals won’t reach.

But for now, the 29-year-old Cueto is a Royal and he will match up with against other No. 1 arms in October.

“He is as good as any starter out there,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.

If the Royals’ blueprint goes as planned, Cueto would start Game One of the World Series, where the opposing starter could be Madison Bumgarner (remember him?) of the Giants, Max Scherzer of the Nationals, Greinke or Kershaw of the Dodgers or Matt Harvey of the Mets.

While the Royals have the best bullpen in the majors, they needed a quality starter. They have been targeting Cueto for a long time. Royals general manager Dayton Moore said they’ve had a scout at most of Cueto’s starts for the Reds this season before the trade was finalized.

“He was a top priority for us,” Moore said. “We felt he fit us and he was a pitcher that matched up very well with anybody. He’s a top rotation starter.”

No doubt the Royals gave up a lot for Cueto.

“If you focus on what you’re losing or giving up or trading away, you’ll never make a deal,” Moore said. “We felt Johnny Cueto was the very best pitcher for our team, the right acquisition and somebody we could put at the top of the rotation and move forward with. If we’re getting the right player back, we’ve always tried to be very aggressive to win the negotiations.”

As far as keeping Cueto in a Royals uniform after this season, that appears dubious.

“Those discussions take place at a much later time,” Moore said. “We acquired Johnny Cueto to help us compete and win a division and, hopefully, get back to the playoffs and win a World Series. That’s where our focus is.”

Moore acknowledges the window of opportunity is small. The Royals may never be better than they are this year. Alex Gordon is eligible for free agency after this season and might be unaffordable for the Kansas City market place.

Cueto should enjoy picking at Kauffman Stadium more than his Cincinnati home yard – the homer-happy Great American Park. And he will tip his cap to the Royals’ defense.

“It just makes us a better team for now and going into the playoffs in October,” Yost said.

There are those two words again – playoffs and October.

That’s the reason the Royals acquired Cueto: winning in the playoffs and in October, not regular season games in August and September.

Article by Alan Eskew

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