Cueto has been arguably the most dominant and consistent starting pitcher this side of Felix Hernandez in 2014. Remember: Even the incomparable Clayton Kershaw missed six weeks with an early-season injury.
Through his 26 starts, the Reds' 28-year-old right-hander is 15-6 with a 2.06 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 187 strikeouts in 187.2 innings. That ERA and WHIP currently rank third-best overall, the innings total is the second-highest around, and not a single pitcher in Major League Baseball can top those 15 wins.
Oh, and Cueto's .183 batting average against and 23 quality starts? Those also lead the sport.
So what does such a super season have to do with Cueto's suspect sense of timing? Only this: He isn't going to be a free agent until after next year.
The Reds have a $10 million option on Cueto as part of the four-year, $27 million contract he inked prior to the 2011 campaign. Think they'll be picking that up?
So for all of his effort in becoming a true front-of-the-rotation ace in 2014, Cueto will be paid like a mid-rotation starter in 2015. Unless, of course, Cincinnati was to pony up and offer him a long-term extension between now and next spring to prevent him from hitting the open market as a 29-year-old with a rather impressive resume.
In his seven-year career, Cueto is sporting a 3.29 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. He also finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting during his dynamite 2012 season.
"As a manager, it's very comfortable just being able to put all of your stock in one guy," Reds manager Bryan Price said, via Mark Sheldon of MLB.com, after Cueto's 15th win over the weekend. "You go all in with Johnny."
Thing is, going "all-in" on Cueto is almost an impossibility for Cincinnati. The Reds, despite a franchise-record $114 million payroll this year, aren't exactly a big-market club. And there already are a few big-money contracts in their cupboard already.
In case you didn't realize, all four of those players have spent time on the disabled list this year, and in the cases of first baseman Joey Votto (quad) and second baseman Brandon Phillips (thumb), significant time. While Phillips just made it back this week, Votto's return remains very much a question, as does his career going forward given how depleted his production has been in light of the injury.
And now right-hander Homer Bailey—who signed his $105 million extension just this past February—is on the shelf with a flexor mass injury to his right arm, per C. Trent Rosecrans of the The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Together, Votto, Bailey, Phillips and Bruce account for approximately $48 million alone next year, and because Votto and Bailey's deals were back-loaded in particular, that number is only going to go up.
Besides that quartet, the Reds also have to worry about the rising salaries of right-handers Mike Leake and Mat Latos, both of whom are headed into their final run through the arbitration process, as well as closer Aroldis Chapman, who is going through Round 2. Each of those three will see significant raises from their 2014 figures, which are about $5.9 million, $7.3 million and $5.0 million, respectively.
So while Cueto has put together the kind of campaign which might call for the kind of $120-$150 million extension that Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants and Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies signed during the 2012 season, it's pretty clear that the Reds won't be in position to fork over that kind of money. Frankly, after all the injuries to their high-priced players this year, they might not have the guts.
All of which means that Cueto, as great as he's been in 2014, is going to have to be nearly as great and consistent in 2015. That certainly won't be easy, especially for a pitcher who has had his own share of injury issues in his career.
Remember, Cueto made only 11 starts last season while making three separate trips to the disabled list for the same right-shoulder/lat muscle injury. He also has two other DL trips, one in 2009 and again in 2011, for shoulder inflammation, and rather infamously left Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS after only eight pitches due to back spasms.
On one hand, Cueto is in position to cash in on his career year right now, but the Reds almost certainly won't have the financial fortitude to meet Cueto's price tag now that he's but a year from free agency.
On the other hand, Cueto will have to prove he can pitch close to this well again while also staying healthy for a second straight full season—he's never had back-to-back years without a DL stint—if he's going to make the most of his upcoming free agency.
The Reds could look to move Cueto in a trade over the winter, and there's sure to be speculation on that front as the club explores its options. The return, however, wouldn't be overwhelming because he only has one season left of team control, after which he would require a potential nine-figure contract.
For a pitcher who is in the prime of his career and performing the way he has this season, there's a heck of a lot riding on 2015. Because Cueto just might have to try to do this all over again.
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