Johnny Cueto Splash Is Missing Piece to Yankees' Playoff Run

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2015

CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 17:  Johnny Cueto #47 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Great American Ball Park on June 17, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If you've ever wondered what Johnny Cueto would look like in pinstripes, you're not alone.

The New York Yankees were curious enough to send a scout to watch the Cincinnati Reds ace pitch recently, per George A. King III of the New York Post. And the scout stuck around for at least two Cueto outings, per Jon Morosi of Fox Sports:

The Yanks were also looking at veteran Reds right-hander Mike Leake, King reported. Of Leake, an unnamed scout told King, "In the National League, he could be a 3; in the AL, a 4."

Cueto, on the other hand, is an unambiguous No. 1, a game-changing prize who would instantly elevate any rotation.

There's a wrinkle: Cueto had his next scheduled start pushed from Tuesday to Friday after missing time with elbow soreness, per Hardball Talk's Aaron Gleeman.

But let's assume that's merely a precaution and focus instead on Cueto's typically stellar 2.98 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 90.2 innings. 

And let's further assume Cincinnati is willing to move him, a question Cueto's agent, Bryce Dixon, addressed in early June while chatting with MLB Network Radio's Jim Bowden.

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"They've made no indications to Johnny that they want to trade him," Dixon told Bowden, "but reading the tea leaves, if they fall out of contention, it seems to make sense from their end because if they ride the season out with him and don't make the playoffs, then they're stuck with a compensation pick. And, from where I sit, I think they can probably get more than that on the trade market."

As for an asking price for the 29-year-oldwho made the NL All-Star team and finished second in Cy Young balloting in 2014here are King's thoughts:

Any team talking to the Yankees would have to ask for right-hander Luis Severino and/or outfielder Aaron Judge, but it's not likely the Yankees would part with their two top prospects for a rental.

However, the Reds have scouted the Yankees' system, and players such as outfielders Ramon Flores and Mason Williams and pitcher Bryan Mitchell might be attractive as part of a package.

It makes sense for New York to guard its most valuable trade chips, and Cueto is a short-term rental who will become a free agent after this season.

Make no mistake, though: Adding one of the top starting pitchers in baseball would be huge for the Yankees. Maybe huge enough to hand them the American League East, which at the moment is MLB's most muddled, up-for-grabs division.

Entering play Tuesday, New York was 38-32, one game behind the Tampa Bay Rays.

The bats have held up their end of the bargain, plating 334 runs, second best in the big leagues.

Yankees hurlers, however, own a pedestrian 4.42 ERA, worse than 22 other teams, many of whom won't sniff the playoffs.

Michael Pineda is in the midst of a breakout campaign, and Masahiro Tanaka has shown flashes of brilliance. But Tanaka, who got shelled Sunday, is also a ticking injury time bomb, always seemingly a twinge away from catastrophe.

Ivan Nova—another promising Yankees pitcher set to start Wednesday, according to Newsday's Jordan Lauterbach—is working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

And hefty lefty CC Sabathia has been mediocre at best, posting a 5.31 ERA in 83 innings of work.

Tally it all and you've got a starting staff in search of a spine that'll prop it up through the remainder of the 162-game grind and, if it's lucky, into October.

Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka has been brilliant at times this season but has also landed on the disabled list.
Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka has been brilliant at times this season but has also landed on the disabled list.Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press

Speaking of which: New York hasn't tasted playoff baseball since 2012, which counts as an agonizing, unacceptable drought in the Bronx.

With seasoned hitters (Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez) staving off Father Time, the Yankees need experienced arms to pitch in. They're an aging club for the most part, with a rapidly closing window. Plus, they're the Yankees, a franchise in perpetual win-now mode.

Will they do what it takes to land Cueto? Possibly not, given their recent run of restraint and the legitimate questions surrounding his health. 

All the same, the Reds figure to at least dangle him as they fade out in the NL Central. And the Yankees, big fish that they are, should seriously consider taking the bait.

All statistics current as of June 22 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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