clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Making A Cubs Midsummer Deal: Johnny Cueto

The impending free agent ace would add a jolt to the Cubs rotation, albeit one with lots of risk

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a month ago, I took a 40,000-foot view of the expected summer trading marketplace with a particular eye on names that might interest the Cubs. I thought it was a little early to look back then, but after a typically quiet June in terms of deals, the Rule 4 Draft and July 2nd international free agency extravaganza are in the rearview mirror, freeing teams to focus their attentions on the midsummer arms race. We took a prolonged look at the guy who figures to be the top prize available this summer about a month ago, Phillies ace Cole Hamels, but a week into July, it's time to examine the marketplace in earnest.

We'll kick things back into gear by looking at Reds' ace Johnny Cueto. As we did in the Hamels piece, we'll look at what exactly would be acquired, determine the general price tag, propose a few trades that might fit given the way the teams match up with each other, and rule on whether any of the deals actually make sense.

The Acquisition
Cueto has always had to overcome his diminutive stature in the eyes of the baseball world. Despite his electric stuff -- we'll get there in a moment -- Cueto is listed at 5-11 and reports have him actually being somewhere between just 5-8 and 5-10. Thanks to his frame, the Reds secured his services as an 18-year-old in 2004 for just $35,000.

Despite his physique, Cueto zoomed through the Cincinnati farm system en route to a full-season debut in 2008. Cueto pitched as a solid, back-end rotation option in his first two seasons, but he really began to emerge in his third year in 2010 and he hasn't looked back sense, posting an ERA of just 2.53 over 117 starts from 2011 through the present. While Cueto's FIP is nearly a run higher (3.36), his peripheral statistics nevertheless indicate that he is consistently at or near ace-level production. Still just 29, there's reason to think he still has five or so years left at this level.

His repertoire is drool-worthy. Cueto actually throws six pitches with four apiece checking in at least 15 percent of his offerings: a mid-90s four-seam fastball, a low-90s two-seam fastball, a high-80s cutter, and a mid-80s changeup. Cueto also throws a mid-80s slider and a low-80s curveball, though he makes his money off of his three fastballs and the changeup. He has limited home runs in a masterful way despite spending his entire career calling Great American Ballpark his home site, his strikeouts have ticked upward for four straight years, and his walk rate -- while never a problem -- has torpedoed downward since his early years. Cueto's absurdly low BABIPs have been a staple of his career as he has come in at .237 dating to the start of the 2013 season. That's incredible.

There is a red flag on his resume, a problem that has reappeared at the worst time: the injury bug. Cueto has had numerous right shoulder injuries, injuries that cost him two months of the 2011 season and the overwhelming majority of the 2013 year. In addition to the continuing right shoulder injuries, Cueto missed some time earlier this year with an elbow injury, though an MRI revealed no structural damage.

With only the remainder of 2015 left on his current contract, Cueto will cost just $5 million the rest of the way.

The Price Tag
It's going to be huge. Even though he's only a rental, Cueto has been a monster long enough that the acquiring team can expect a two or three win upgrade. For a team in the thick of the wild card race like the Cubs, that kind of impact could very well be the difference between playoff baseball and, well, not. Last summer's trade of Jon Lester to the Athletics for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes immediately comes to mind as a comparable. While Cespedes was a rather difficult-to-value commodity, there's no denying that his value was large.

Unlike the Red Sox, I expect that the Reds will command a more youthful return if they deal Cueto as such a deal will signal the start of a massive rebuild, likely to occur after Cincinnati hosts the All-Star Game.

The Proposals
I'm going to go with two proposals for Cueto alone, and then it's going to get even more interesting.

Proposal #1: Cubs trade SP Duane Underwood, OF Billy McKinney, and OF Mark Zagunis to Reds for SP Johnny Cueto

Underwood has emerged into a true headlining piece, though he's obviously still a tier below the likes of Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez. McKinney has done nothing to hurt his status as roughly the 75th best prospect in baseball. And Zagunis has proven that while power isn't a part of his game, his on-base skills continue to soar regardless of the competition. There's a lot of value here. I'm not sure it's enough for Cincinnati, but it largely depends on (1) Cincinnati's patience, and (2) the belief in Underwood's health profile given last month's injury scare.

Proposal #2: Cubs trade SS Javier Baez and SP Erling Moreno to Reds for SP Johnny Cueto

I wouldn't do this trade given my affinity for Baez, but I think Cincinnati will have a tough time doing better than this given Cueto's recent injuries and his lack of control. Like the Phillies before them, the Reds can certainly afford to give Baez a few hundred plate appearances to continue his adjustment to Major League pitching, regardless of his success.

The Other Proposals
This necessitates another section all by itself. The Reds don't just have Cueto to sell: they also have the best relief pitcher in baseball in Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is staring down nearly the worst strikeout rate of his career this a positively absurd 15.54 K/9. Basically, nobody has ever hit Chapman with any consistency. He comes with one additional year of control through arbitration, likely to come in around $12 million.

There's no denying Chapman's dominance: among relievers, Chapman is to Rafael Soriano what Max Scherzer is to Travis Wood among starters. There's no real comparison.

Chapman does have some history with the Cubs that would need to be smoothed over, but pennant races have a way of healing old wounds.

So what would it cost the Cubs to acquire this pair of aces, one in the rotation and one in the bullpen?

Proposal #3: Cubs trade C/LF Kyle Schwarber, SS Javier Baez, and SP Jonathan Martinez to Reds for SP Johnny Cueto and RP Aroldis Chapman

Ouch. Both Schwarber and Baez in the same deal? That's what it costs to pony up for supreme talent, even when it comes without control. I wouldn't do this trade, but the price tag feels about right. Here's another one to try:

Proposal #4: Cubs trade SP Duane Underwood, SS Gleyber Torres, SP Dylan Cease, SP Carson Sands, and OF Eloy Jimenez to Reds for SP Johnny Cueto and RP Aroldis Chapman

This trade felt absolutely crazy to write, but as I looked at it, I appreciated that it's probably about how much low-level talent would need to be included. This has the chance to be akin to the Bartolo Colon trade that powered the mid-2000s Indians teams with OF Grady Sizemore, SP Cliff Lee, and 2B Brandon Phillips leading the way. While the Cubs are well-positioned to absorb the blow of a farm-gutting move such as this one - you'll notice that neither Schwarber or Baez move out - I just couldn't make this trade given the collective ceiling of the talent going out, even though (1) Underwood has had a recent injury scare, (2) Torres has a 55 ceiling, (3) Cease had Tommy John surgery last year, (4) Sands is old (nearly 20.5), and (5) Jimenez is only in short-season ball. I'm a sucker for ceilings.

The Verdict
I'd love for the Cubs to get their hands on Johnny Cueto and/or Aroldis Chapman. I don't want the Cubs to pay midsummer prices, so the possibilities listed above are tough to swallow. Still, the arms are of the impact variety as either would move the needle in a meaningful way. I don't love Cueto enough -- especially since he comes without control beyond 2015 -- to swing any of these deals. But I do love winning. And I love those flags that fly atop Wrigley Field. I'd love to add another.

What do you think about these deals? Vote and sound off.