Not even a week ago, I wrote about which teams needed Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels the most. Since then, Hamels has thrown a no-hitter and Cueto has been traded to the Royals. In my article, I did not name the Royals as a team that needed either pitcher much because their playoff odds are so much higher than any other team in the AL Central and the highest in the AL. Adding Cueto does not help the Royals' playoff chances much, but it does prevent competitors from getting him while making it more likely that the Royals grab the number one seed in the AL. Let's start by estimating the gain the Royals just netted.
Though the Royals had very high playoff odds already, they will improve by adding Cueto. Here's a list of players who have made starts for the Royals this year: Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas, Chris Young, Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Blanton, and Yohan Pino. Of that group, Volquez has been solid, and Young has been maintaining his peripheral-beating ways. Duffy and Ventura have been inconsistent. Ventura was even sent down to the minors until Vargas went down with an impending Tommy John surgery. Guthrie has not been good. PIno was not good. Blanton had good peripherals but allowed a lot of runs.
The point is that Volquez appears to be the only "sure thing" in the Royals rotation right now. In order to estimate the wins Cueto brings, it's necessary to determine whom he will replace, and it makes a difference. Like I said earlier, the Royals just sent down Ventura to AAA before Vargas was injured. They could send him down again. They could push Young or Guthrie to the bullpen. I'll go through each:
- Ventura - projected for 0.9 fWAR for the rest of the season
- Guthrie - 0.2 fWAR
- Young - Basically 0 fWAR
- Cueto - 1.5 fWAR
The projected improvement is anywhere from 1.5 wins to 0.6 wins. I'd guess Cueto will replace a mixture of the guys above, so it's probably a one-win improvement, give or take a bit if you want to use a runs allowed WAR rather than a FIP based one. As far as Cueto's fit for the Royals, it's really quite perfect. Cueto is already a low-BABIP, high-LOB-rate, fly-ball kind of guy. Now he has the Royals defense and a much larger, non-homer-prone park. Despite the transition from the NL to the AL (Cueto has pitched for the Reds his entire career), he will work just fine in Kansas City.
It's pretty easy to say that Cueto will improve the Royals. The Royals starters have not been able to go deep into games, though that issue is mitigated by the presence of the bullpen, and Cueto brings an ability to preserve the bullpen. Cueto averages almost seven innings per start (6.85); the Royals starters average 5.5 innings per start. Cueto brings more than an inning per start on average compared to the current starters.
On a higher level, this trade means a lot for the Royals. Though the team "went for it" by trading for James Shields before the 2013 season, the team had two years of control at reasonable rates with Shields. By trading for Cueto, they're going to give up a lot for a two-month rental. The Royals almost certainly cannot afford to keep him - Cueto will demand big money this offseason, and the Royals have their young core going through arbitration with likely vastly increasing salaries.
Dayton Moore's Process has always been to rely on the minor league pipeline. By trading players from that minor league pipeline to acquire a two-month rental, Moore and the Royals have shown just how far they have come. They are now in the position to use that minor league pipeline to improve the team in the short-term rather than play the long game. A few years ago, a trade like this would have been unimaginable. Now, Royals fans can sit back and enjoy the fruits of the Process. Cueto will help them close the deal down the stretch, and should be a key player in another potentially deep October run.
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