Royals Add Johnny Cueto, Relief for Relievers

Here’s all the proof you need that the Royals didn’t need Johnny Cueto: up until this point, the Royals didn’t have Johnny Cueto. The Royals didn’t really have much of anyone in the rotation, and yet they have the best record in the American League, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. If Cueto were necessary, maybe the Royals would’ve had more problems. Just last year, the Royals came a swing away from winning the World Series, and though they got there in part by leaning on supposed ace James Shields, Shields allowed 17 runs in 25 postseason innings. The Royals haven’t done what they’ve done because of an ace. Moving forward, they’ll be more than their ace.

That’s looking at it from just one perspective, though. You have to consider the other perspective, the one where the Royals’ most valuable starting pitcher so far has been literally Edinson Volquez. Not long ago, Yordano Ventura was officially optioned to Triple-A. Jason Vargas sustained a bad elbow injury, and the state of the Royals’ rotation has been such that that was major news. And, well, just last year, the Royals came a swing away from winning the World Series. James Shields finished 0-and-2. What difference might a real ace have made? An ace like Madison Bumgarner, or Johnny Cueto?

Of course there’s no such thing as a guaranteed championship. Of course most moves are just about moving the needle the smallest little bit. Yet, when you’re talking about adding one single player, it doesn’t get much more significant than going from whatever the other option would’ve been to Cueto. This is a big upgrade, and though the Royals had to pay for it, they feel like they know what they’re paying for. And they feel like they know what this season could be.

The whole trade is as follows —

Royals get:

  • Johnny Cueto
  • cash

Reds get:

As you understand, Cueto’s a rental. There’s no compensation pick coming, and he almost definitely isn’t re-signing in Kansas City. So for the Royals, this is all about 2015, and they’re giving up a considerable amount of big-league cost control. You remember Finnegan from his role in the Royals bullpen down the stretch a summer ago. Maybe you think the return package is light. Maybe you think the Reds should’ve gotten more than three young southpaws. Really, it seems mutually beneficial, if a little unsexy on the Cincinnati end.

The Kansas City end is really quite simple. As far as Cueto was concerned, the Royals were probably the best fit. The fit was clear and easy. Here, you had a good team with a bad rotation. There, you had a bad team with a good and available starter. It’s true that no team in recent history has won the World Series after swinging a midseason deal for a front-line starter, but that doesn’t make it a rule. The Royals just improved their championship odds. They improved their odds of just getting to the championship. They improved their odds of everything good.

The Royals are several games clear of the Twins and the Tigers in the Central. The division isn’t locked up, but it’s getting there, meaning Cueto would be available for series, and not just for a one-game playoff. When last year’s A’s picked up Jon Lester at the deadline, they were just 2.5 games clear of the Angels, and of course they shortly lost that lead. And then Lester couldn’t win the one-game playoff, and that’s evidence of what can happen with these moves and these guys, but Cueto should be good for more than one postseason start. When he pitches, it should give Ned Yost an opportunity to breathe, to not already be thinking about the bullpen from the first pitch of the game.

Because, obviously, the bullpen is a strength. Maybe the strength. And the depth and ability of the bullpen could’ve been used as an excuse for not adding a starter. After all, you could just make every important game a bullpen game. But what that reasoning leaves out is the significance of rest. Not just during the year, but also in the playoffs. The Royals couldn’t be quick to the bullpen in every game. That would increase the odds of the relievers wearing down. And then with worn-down relievers, the Royals would have nothing fresh. The idea here is that Cueto makes the Royals better in the games he pitches, and then indirectly, he could also make the Royals better in the games he doesn’t pitch. It’s not a massive effect, it’s not a landscape-altering transaction, but if you can trust Cueto for an extra turn through the order, then you can save some of the reliever bullets. The Royals might need every last one of them.

If things go according to plan, maybe the Royals can start giving relievers more rest during the final few months. Cueto would help that, too. If things don’t go that way, and the Royals slip back toward the pack, well, again, Cueto helps. Cueto helps everything. He increases the odds of good things, and he decreases the odds of bad things. He makes it more likely the universe spins the wheel and Royals fans come away smiling.

What happens next year? The Royals don’t know about next year. Lamb could’ve been in the rotation. Finnegan could’ve been in the rotation. That depth has been depleted. With a playoff run, the Royals will have extra revenue to spend. This year, that revenue went toward Volquez, Kendrys Morales, and Alex Rios. Which is underwhelming, until you remember the Royals have the AL’s best record anyway, even having lost Shields. What they appear to be saying with this is that they believe in themselves to develop young pitchers. And they believe 2015 is worth trying for, and trying for hard. You can never count on the next opportunity. The next version of the Royals might be down Alex Gordon and one of the bullpen elites.

For the Reds, I don’t know quite what was expected. People say they need bats, and this trade didn’t bring any bats. Nor did it bring a blue-chip, can’t-miss prospect, which it seems like you’d expect when you’re dealing a No. 1. The centerpiece is Brandon Finnegan, even according to the Reds themselves, and as I write this, it’s not clear if Finnegan even has a future as a starter. If you just focus on Finnegan, and his mildly disappointing 2015, this return could seem weak, but there’s a lot more to it.

Before the year, Kiley ranked Finnegan in the middle of the top 100. That made him a good prospect, and he made an impressive early impression a year ago in the bigs, but this is a potential starting pitcher, and this year he hasn’t thrown more than 62 pitches in a game at any level. That’s not good for a starter’s development, and Finnegan has thrown fewer strikes than before, maybe as a consequence of having been moved around a bunch. Yet he’s still a lefty with a good fastball and a slider, and he’s 22, and he’s seen the major leagues. The Reds are going to stretch him out in Triple-A, and Finnegan isn’t the first guy the Reds will try starting, even though many see him more as a reliever. There’s real potential here. And there’s a pitcher who could help in 2016, softening the blow of a big-league-roster teardown.

Had this trade been made months ago, Lamb and Reed would’ve seemed like throw-ins. Yet they add a lot of interest to the return package, because 2015 has been kind to them both. Take Lamb, a former top prospect himself who’s gone through some injury stuff and under-performance. He wasn’t real good last year in Triple-A, but this year the 25-year-old has taken a step forward, and he might be just about ready for the major leagues. His K-BB% last season was below league average. This year he’s in the top 5% of the PCL. With strikeouts up and walks down, Lamb doesn’t need to do much more, and as a lefty with an 89-93 fastball but a legitimate changeup, he’s close. He could be a long-term, second-tier asset.

And here’s Kiley, on Reed:

This season has seen Reed face higher levels of competition than last season. Yet, as a starter, he’s trimmed his walks by 30%, and he’s increased his strikeouts by 40%. He’s made it up to Double-A, and while he’s further off than Finnegan and Lamb, Reed could have his own real future, and Kiley talked to a scout who’d rank Reed as a No. 101 – 150 prospect overall. That’s a good player to add to an organization, especially when that player is trending up.

The Kazmir trade looked light at first, because we’re all biased by what we thought about guys before the year. It’s similar here. Before the year, Finnegan looked talented, but it wasn’t clear if he was a starter, and Lamb and Reed were mostly nothing. Now, there are still questions about Finnegan, but Lamb’s got a real shot and Reed’s got a real shot, so this trade goes deeper than one guy with question marks. It makes the Royals feel good, because if they can help Lamb and Reed, maybe they can help other guys in the organization to replace them. And it makes the Reds feel good, because while it always sucks to lose a Johnny Cueto, there are three pitchers coming back, two who could help soon, and another whose stock is rising. The Reds are unlikely to be good again for a bit, but they should be able to avoid the deepest depths of rebuilding misery.

Scott Kazmir to the Astros? Johnny Cueto to the Royals? Maybe this trade deadline is going to be especially predictable. It’s funny that those two trades became trades that we would consider predictable.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Shirtless George Brett
8 years ago

As a Royals fan I’m happy with the trade. They got what they (kind of) needed and didnt really give up a ton. Although Iam a bit confused that that was the winning package of players. It seems like someone like the Jays should have been able to top that. Without even having to include someone like Stroman.