Making the Case for the Cincinnati Reds to Trade Johnny Cueto

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Making the Case for the Cincinnati Reds to Trade Johnny Cueto
Ralph Freso/Associated Press

The Cincinnati Reds should trade Johnny Cueto. There, I said it. It's like taking a Band-Aid off. Do it quickly, and it doesn't sting as much.

So the Reds should trade Cueto, right? They're three games under .500, 7.5 games back of the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers and 2.5 games back of the much better St. Louis Cardinals, who sit in second place in the NL Central.

Both of these teams (the Cardinals more so than the Brewers) are better set up for success than the Reds. Among NL teams, the Reds rank in the bottom third in runs scored, hits, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and total bases.

In addition to the anemic offense, the Reds have a less-than-ideal situation coming down the pipe in which they'll have three starting pitchers—Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake—all due for contract extensions following the 2015 season.

Beyond their concerns for the 2014 season, though, the Reds' farm system drops off significantly after the organizational top five. What they do have, however, is a plethora of pitching prospects who could help to fill the void left by the decision to trade one or more of the team's arms up for extensions in 2015.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports believes the Reds will at the very least entertain offers on the three pitchers mentioned above, as well as on closer Aroldis Chapman.

There's no doubt that Cueto would provide the team with the best return value, so let's take a look at why they should trade him and what some potential return packages could look like.

 

The Offense Needs Upgrading

So the offense is fatally flawed, right?

Need more convincing than what I gave you earlier? Consider the performances put forth by starting position players not named Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, Devin Mesoraco or Todd Frazier, as they're the only ones producing to this point.

2014 Reds' position players
Splits G AB AVG OBP SLG RBI R SB K/BB
Brandon Phillips 53 215 .270 .293 .395 20 18 0 47:8
Zack Cozart 51 182 .225 .266 .313 13 12 1 29:7
Billy Hamilton 50 171 .251 .290 .331 10 22 20 36:9
Jay Bruce 38 132 .197 .314 .318 14 22 5 46:22
Totals 55 700 .240 .292 .346 71 79 24 188:58

Baseball-Reference.com

The offense has been horrifyingly incompetent. The light-hitting Billy Hamilton hasn't exactly set the world on fire, but he's right around some of the early projections for his 2014 season.

The most troubling things, which you may have already noticed, arise when you compare his stats—remember, this is a player who hit a total of 13 home runs over 502 minor league games—to those of some of the players who were expected to truly help carry the offense.

Al Behrman/Associated Press
Trading Cueto could net the Reds an opportunity to land themselves a long-term replacement for Zack Cozart.

Jay Bruce, a perennial 30-35 home run threat, owns a .320 slugging percentage through his first 36 games. Part of this may be due to the meniscus injury he suffered—he just recently returned from that surgery—but it's certainly worth noting that he's being outslugged by Hamilton.

Zack Cozart has pulled his regularly scheduled disappearing act for the third straight season now, and with no viable replacements coming through the system—the closest thing the team had to that, Tanner Rahier, has already been moved to third base—it may be a good time to look at upgrading the position by adding either a top-tier prospect or a current big league player.

 

Team-Friendly Contract Status

Starting Pitchers Dealt at Recent Trade Deadlines
Player Name Years Left on Contract Player Salary
Jake Peavy (2013) 1+Player Option $14.5 Million
Matt Garza (2013) 0 $10.25 Million
Anibal Sanchez (2012) 0 $8.00 Million
Zack Greinke (2012) 0 $13.50 Million
Ryan Dempster (2012) 0 $14.00 Million
Doug Fister (2011) Club control through 2013, Arb. eligible through 2015 $436,500
Cliff Lee (2010) 0 $6.00 Million
Dan Haren (2010) 2+Club option for 2013 $8.25 Million
Roy Oswalt (2010) 1 $15 Million

Baseball-Reference.com

Take a quick look at some of the pitchers dealt during the year over the last four seasons, and you'll notice some major differences between Cueto and the pitchers listed above.

The first thing is that most of these pitchers—excluding Dan Haren and Doug Fisterhad at maximum one year left on their current contracts. Fister and Haren are the only two exceptions to that trend. Haren had two seasons left on his deal, plus a club option for a third year, while Fister was still under club control with arbitration-eligible seasons in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Cueto's deal is similar to that of Jake Peavy's. Peavy joined the Red Sox just after the midway point of the 2013 season and had another year (2014) on his current deal, plus a player option for 2015. Peavy's player option has some stipulations set in place regarding his innings total, so it's still unclear as to whether or not that option will actually materialize.

Even so, Peavy was owed $14.5 million for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and his 2015 player option is worth a whopping $15 million.

Cueto, however, is owed just $10 million this season, and his club option next season clocks in at the same amount. Even if a team was looking to cut ties with him at the commencement of the 2014 season—highly unlikely—the acquiring team would be out just $800,000.

 

Sky-High Value

Johnny Cueto's value is never going to be higher than it is at this very moment. 

Take a look at current MLB pitchers ranking in the top five in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and WAR for the 2014 season:

Top-5 Rankings for MLB Starters
MLB Rank 1 2 3 4 5
ERA Cueto (1.68) Hudson (1.75) Teheran (1.83) Tanaka (2.06) Darvish (2.08)
WHIP Cueto (0.76) Hudson (0.87) Hammel (0.87) Wainwright (0.91) Teheran (0.93)
Strikeouts Lester (95) Kluber (95) Cueto (92) Price (90) Strasburg (90)
WAR Cueto (3.2) Darvish (3.1) Buehrle (2.9) Keuchel (2.9) Tanaka (2.8)

Baseball-Reference.com

Cueto ranks first in every category except for strikeouts and at this juncture is arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball. In addition to that, he has a more established track record for success than a lot of the pitchers in these rankings, including the likes of Julio Teheran, Masahiro Tanaka, Dallas Keuchel and Jason Hammel.

Among the seven other pitchers who have longer and more effective careers, Cueto has arguably the best contract situation of any of them, as he's owed just $10 million for next year's club option. In fact, among those seven, Cueto ranks in a tie with Yu Darvish for the lowest salary owed in 2015.

Cueto is functioning as the best pitcher in baseball right now, and it isn't very often that this type of pitcher becomes available, much less with a year left on his contract.

 

The Awesome Return Package

The Reds' farm system isn't that deep. A quick look through Baseball America's prospect handbook for the 2014 season will show that only five players grade out at 55 or higher their 40-80 scale.

One of those players is Billy Hamilton, and he's already graduated to the big league level. Another, Robert Stephenson, is a starting pitcher, but that part of the system is hardly an area of concern.

The other three players, Phillip Ervin, Jesse Winker and Yorman Rodriguez, are outfielders. Ervin is a somewhat stocky outfielder who figures to lose a step as he matures—you can likely rule out center field. Winker is a solid hitter but will likely slot in as a left fielder with average power at best.

Yorman Rodriguez has a shot to be a great regular in the outfield as well, but he carries an extreme level of risk and, given the continuation of his sky-high strikeout rate this season at Double-A Pensacola, there's a strong possibility he could flop or turn into a fourth outfielder a la Chris Heisey.

In addition to the names above, The club has a number of pitching prospects making waves this season—Michael Lorenzen, Nick Travieso and Ismael Guillon—all of whom figure to be ready for either mid-2015 or at the start of the 2016 season.

Aside from Robert Stephenson, there are no can't-miss impact players in the Reds' system. In short, there's a lot of room to upgrade.

Trading Cueto could net the Reds two elite prospects and possibly a third mid-level one to boot. 

Consider the teams who are at or near the the top of their respective divisions, who also need help in the starting rotation in order to either get them over the hump or help secure their division leads:

Teams in Need of Pitching Help
Team Division Division Ranking Games Back Wild-Card GB
New York Yankees AL East 2nd 4.0 --
Toronto Blue Jays AL East 1st -- --
Baltimore Orioles AL East 3rd 4.5 0.5
Texas Rangers AL West 4th 6.0 0.5
Boston Red Sox AL East 4th 6.5 2.5
Colorado Rockies NL West 3rd 8.5 1.0

Baseball-Reference.com

The Dodgers are also a team with immense minor league depth, and although they possess, by the numbers, one of the better starting rotations in baseball, they find themselves 7.5 games back of the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants, putting them in prime position to deal for some additional help in the starting rotation.

That's a good crop of seven teams who could use some help in the starting rotation.

Of the teams in the list above, the Red Sox, Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees and Rockies find themselves in the best all-around position to make a deal. From that group, the Red Sox, Rangers and Rockies are in an even greater position in relation to their ability to provide the Reds with a sufficient package of prospects.

Here are some possible trade packages the Reds could expect to receive in dealing Cueto to any of the teams listed above:

Possible Cueto Return Packages
Players 1 2 3
Red Sox Mookie Betts (2B) Trey Ball (SP) Deven Marrero (SS)
Rangers Nick Williams (OF) Joey Gallo (3B) Luis Sardinas (SS)
Blue Jays Aaron Sanchez (SP) Franklin Barreto (SS) ------
Yankees Gary Sanchez (C) Aaron Judge (OF) Abiatal Avelino (SS)
Rockies Eddie Butler (SP) David Dahl (OF) Trevor Story (SS)

Bleacher Report

The return packages from the Rockies, Rangers and Red Sox would be the best of the group, and each of the proposed trade packages would give the Reds some valuable pieces, including middle infielders—particularly shortstops—and an outfielder who could lock down left field with the departure of Ludwick following the 2014 season.

The Rockies package would give the Reds a little bit of everything.

Netting Eddie Butler and David Dahl would be a huge boost for the Reds' farm system.

The team possesses two elite pitching prospects in Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler, the latter coming to Cincinnati. Butler would give the Reds a second starting pitcher prospect with ace-like potential, and given his recent development trend along with his performance this season at Double-A Tulsa, he could be ready for big league action as soon as mid-2014.

David Dahl hitting for the Asheville Tourists.

In addition to Butler, outfielder David Dahl and shortstop Trevor Story would also find their way to Cincinnati. Dahl has five-tool potential and provides decent pop at the plate, outstanding defense and potential for middle-of-the-order success.

Story is a bit more of a wild card, and while he projects to be a solid big league shortstop at maturity, there are some legitimate concerns surrounding his plate discipline and pitch recognition skills after posting strikeout rates of 22 percent and 33 percent in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Any of the trades listed above would suffice, however, and would net the Reds at least two top-tier prospects, and in some cases a third mid-to-low-tier prospect.

 

Wrap-Up

The Reds are likely to trade at least one arm this summer.

Once Latos returns, the team will possess six starters for five spots. While the team could easily return Alfredo Simon to the bullpen in an effort to shore up what has been a rather disappointing unit this season, they could just as easily perhaps trade one of those starters and upgrade their farm system.

Should the Reds trade Johnny Cueto?

Submit Vote vote to see results

While it would be easy to say that the Reds should skip the formalities and go right after the power-hitting outfielder they most desperately need, one should remember that the teams looking at Cueto this summer aren't going to be in the market to give up an outfielder with power oozing out of his ears.

Cueto's departure would likely spell the end of the Reds' season, which might sting fans a little bit. However, the offense is not set up for long-term success, and neither is the farm system.

By cutting their losses this year, the Reds could potentially retool for another run next season and be truly ready to compete in 2016.

 

All stats are current through June 2, 2014 and are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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