The Cincinnati Reds are not exactly off to a roaring start this season. They currently stand at 6-9 on the year and have a number of areas that need to be shored up if they hope to contend.
However, the top of the rotation would not be one of those areas. Right-hander Johnny Cueto has been fantastic this season and looks to be back at the dominant level he was prior to an injury-plagued 2013.
In what was his fourth start of the season Wednesday, Cueto fired a three-hit shutout at the Pittsburgh Pirates, striking out a career-high 12 batters in the process and walking none.
It was his first win of the season as he was the tough-luck loser in two of his other three starts. It also marked his first complete game since June 12, 2012.
While this was by far his best start of the season, he has recorded a quality start in each of his four starts on the year, and his ERA now stands at 1.50 after his dominant performance against the Pirates.
|Johnny Cueto 2014 Game Log|
|Mar. 31 (STL)||7||3||1||1||8|
|Apr. 5 (NYM)||7||5||2||3||9|
|Apr. 11 (TB)||7||5||2||4||6|
|Apr. 16 (PIT)||9||3||0||0||12|
The early success is a fantastic sign for both Cueto and the Reds since the 28-year-old was sidelined for a good portion of last season with a right shoulder strain.
All told he made three different trips to the disabled list last season, missing a combined 117 games. That limited him to just 11 starts on the season, including just two after the All-Star break.
Despite that long layoff, the Reds still saw enough out of him in two starts down the stretch to hand him the ball in the team's Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The results weren't great, though, as he allowed eight hits and four earned runs in 3.1 innings of work and was clearly rattled by the raucous Pittsburgh crowd.
That was enough to raise the question as to what Cueto to expect in 2014, and if he could ever get back to the form that made him a legitimate NL Cy Young Award candidate in 2012.
He wound up finishing fourth in the voting that season while also garnering some NL MVP consideration. He ranked among the league leaders in a number of categories.
|Johnny Cueto's 2012 Stats and NL Rank|
|Wins||19||third||Gio Gonzalez (21)|
|ERA||2.78||third||Clayton Kershaw (2.53)|
|ERA+||148||second||Clayton Kershaw (150)|
|WHIP||1.171||15th||Clayton Kershaw (1.023)|
|Ks||170||30th||R.A. Dickey (230)|
|IP||217||fifth||R.A. Dickey (233.2)|
|WAR (Pitchers)||5.9||second||Clayton Kershaw (6.2)|
It's clear he was one of the best pitchers in the National League that season and a bona fide staff ace, and it looks like he is back at that level based on the early returns this season.
Paul Severino of MLB Network hit the nail on the head after the game, stressing the importance of a healthy Cueto to the team's rotation.
A healthy Cueto is exactly what the Reds have needed too, with fellow front-line starter Mat Latos starting the season on the disabled list and recently suffering a setback that will have him shut down for a couple weeks and re-evaluated, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com.
Add to that the fact that Homer Bailey, who is fresh off of a six-year, $105 million extension this offseason, has a robust 8.16 ERA and 2.023 WHIP through his first three starts and it's a surprise the Reds aren't off to a worse start.
Speaking of financials, Cueto remains a steal at $10 million this season, thanks to a four-year, $27 million deal the team gave him prior to the 2011 season.
That deal also carries a $10 million option for next season, and the Reds will no doubt jump at the chance to exercise it if he keeps pitching like he has.
In the long term, one has to wonder if the Reds can afford to extend Cueto given the money they have tied up in the likes of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and the aforementioned Homer Bailey.
Latos is also set to hit free agency following the 2015 season, and the team will almost certainly have to choose one or the other, with Latos perhaps having the edge given the fact that he's two years younger.
For the time being, though, Cueto is still in Cincinnati, and the Reds look to again have one of the best pitchers in the National League at their disposal following a dominant performance from their ace Wednesday.