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Paging Walt Jocketty: Trade Johnny Cueto now

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Johnny Cueto's value has never been higher, and the Reds must take advantage of that fact.

Johnny Cueto is headed for free agency, and will likely be wearing a new uniform in 2016.
Johnny Cueto is headed for free agency, and will likely be wearing a new uniform in 2016.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Reds are not contenders. That statement shouldn’t shock anyone reading this. Anything can happen in baseball, and as Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain’t over till it’s over." I could be eating my words come September 30th, but that seems unlikely given the current roster construction of the Reds. Fangraphs has them pegged for 76 wins, while PECOTA is projecting a slightly better season finishing with 79 wins. It may be tough to accept, as hope springs eternal for all 30 MLB teams this early in the spring, but it’s evident that the Reds need to trade Johnny Cueto, and the sooner the better.

Cueto is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and is only one year away from testing free agency. Assuming no health issues in 2015, Cueto can expect an enormous payday. With the Reds' payroll coming in at $112 million in 2014, it’s unlikely that they will be able to compete in a market in which the elite starting pitchers fetch contracts that have AAVs beginning at $20 million and stretching past $30 million.

The Reds are seemingly in this position as a result of a calculated risk taken by Reds GM Walt Jocketty. By handing out lucrative contracts to Joey Votto ($225 million) and Homer Bailey ($105 million) and double-digit salaries to players like Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, their ability to sign players has taken a hit. With Cueto coming off an incredibly productive year across all of the major metrics we have at our disposal, his value has increased dramatically.

GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR
2008 31 174.0 8.17 3.52 1.50 .298 72.5% 4.81 4.90 4.31 4.11 1.2
2009 30 171.1 6.93 3.20 1.26 .291 73.6% 4.41 4.69 4.51 4.34 1.3
2010 31 185.2 6.69 2.71 0.92 .290 76.1% 3.64 3.97 4.09 4.10 2.6
2011 24 156.0 6.00 2.71 0.46 .249 76.4% 2.31 3.45 3.90 3.92 2.6
2012 33 217.0 7.05 2.03 0.62 .296 78.8% 2.78 3.27 3.65 3.73 4.5
2013 11 60.2 7.57 2.67 1.04 .236 81.5% 2.82 3.81 3.23 3.48 0.6
2014 34 243.2 8.94 2.40 0.81 .238 82.5% 2.25 3.30 3.21 3.15 4.1

Right now Cueto is a sparkling attraction to clubs who think they are an "ace away" from a post-season run. He posted career bests in many of the listed metrics while simultaneously quelling injury concerns by throwing 243.2 innings after an injury plagued 2013 season.

While Cueto doesn’t boast the velocity of someone like David Price, he’s remained incredibly reliable throughout his career and has shown little change in pitch speeds.

vFA vFT vFC vSL vCU vCH
2008 93.2 85.0 81.6 84.6
2009 92.7 90.9 86.4 86.2 84.2
2010 93.1 93.1 86.0 83.5
2011 92.0 93.4 82.6 83.7
2012 92.5 92.6 88.7 82.8 83.7
2013 92.4 92.4 88.3 83.9 74.8 83.5
2014 92.8 93.0 88.5 83.6 75.0 84.2

Since 2011, none of his average velocities has changed by more than 1.3 MPH. While pitchers like CC Sabathia and Tim Lincecum, who once relied on incredibly potent fastballs, have seen their velocity plummet and affect their ability to remain valuable, Cueto has been a pillar of stability. That can be seen only as reassuring for any GMs that want to target him in a future trade.

Just as his velocity has remained largely unchanged, so too have the vertical and horizontal movements on all of his pitches.

There are some slight variations, mostly with horizontal movement, but since 2011 all of Cueto’s pitches have been pretty much the same in terms of overall movement. Once again, this stability equates to lower risk to the GM who may have to part with highly valued prospects for a shot at a championship.

The most notable change in Cueto’s repertoire in 2014 was undoubtedly his pitch values.

wFB wSL wCT wCB wCH
2008 -9.1 -2.9 -0.1 -1.5
2009 -2.6 -0.2 -3.7
2010 -2.6 -3.9 6.6 3.0
2011 13.3 6.4 -1.1 2.3
2012 15.9 -0.6 2.0 -1.3 1.5
2013 2.5 -2.4 1.6 6.8
2014 22.0 -4.5 4.7 -1.5 14.0

Cueto posted career bests in wFB and wCH while also making a noticeable improvement with his cutter. His 2013 season was cut short due to injury, but even when 2014 is compared to his 2012 season there’s a clear difference. Cueto had a fantastic fastball in 2011 and 2012 but still managed to produce a value 6.1 points higher in 2014. His changeup, a positive pitch since 2010, had never been as good as it was last season and helped Cueto dominate hitters.

Assuming Cueto remains healthy and performs up to expectations, he will command an elite deal in the open market. In the past few seasons, the market price for elite pitchers has been firmly established.

Player Age when signed Total Contract AAV
Clayton Kershaw 26 $215,000,000 $30,714,285
Max Scherzer 29 $210,000,000 $28,690,000
Felix Hernandez 27 $175,000,000 $25,000,000
Justin Verlander 32 $162,000,000 $27,000,000
Jon Lester 30 $155,000,000 $25,833,333
Zack Grienke 29 $147,000,000 $24,500,000
Cliff Lee 32 $120,000,000 $24,000,000
James Shields 32 $75,000,000 $18,750,000
Johnny Cueto Will be 30 ? ?

It’s impossible to predict the exact dollar figure that Cueto will get, but for the point of this article, I'll assume a very conservative AAV of $20 million. As mentioned previously, the Reds' payroll in 2014 was $112 million. Placing Cueto’s deal in the context of the Reds’ other commitments through 2019 yields an ugly financial situation (Italics signifies club option).

Player 2016 2017 2018 2019
Joey Votto $20,000,000 $22,000,000 $25,000,000 $25,000,000
Jay Bruce $12,541,666 $13,000,000 $0 $0
Brandon Phillips $13,000,000 $14,000,000 $0 $0
Homer Bailey $18,000,000 $19,000,000 $21,000,000 $23,000,000
Marlon Byrd $8,000,000 $0 $0 $0
Todd Frazier $7,500,000 $0 $0 $0
Devin Mesoraco $5,025,000 $7,325,000 $13,125,000
Raisel Iglesias $3,214,285 $4,214,285 $5,214,285 $5,714,285
Bronson Arroyo $1,363,636 $1,363,636 $1,363,636 $1,363,636
Total $88,644,587 $80,902,921 $65,702,921 $55,077,921
Total w/ Cueto $108,644,587 $100,902,921 $85,702,921 $75,077,921

Even at a generous "home discount" from Cueto, in 2016 the Reds would be committed to $108.6 million to nine players, only $3.4 million less than their entire 2014 payroll. Perhaps the most prohibitive hurdle working against the Reds' potential efforts to resign Cueto is the startling amount of money that Jocketty gave to Homer Bailey. Comparability to other players factors into contract negotiations, which makes the likelihood of retaining Cueto unlikely. Bailey has yet to prove that he’s an ace but is set to make $23 million in 2019, a number that would undoubtedly influence Cueto’s negotiations with Cincinnati. Unless the Reds and Cueto were open to deferring an incredible amount of money, it's hard to imagine a world where Bailey makes more than Cueto.

With all of these factors considered, the smart thing to do would be to find the best package for Cueto and take it now. With his shaky injury history that did not manifest in 2014 in addition to a career year, Cueto’s value has never been higher. Teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay are well versed in the practice of having to part with impending free agents, and the Reds need to take that practice to heart. While signing Cueto to a contract isn’t impossible given the Reds’ payroll level, it would likely cripple any future efforts to field a playoff contending team.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Sportrac, Cots Baseball Contracts, and Baseball-Reference.

Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.