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Johnny Cueto's Future at an Impasse as Trade Deadline, Free Agency Approach

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJuly 1, 2015

Gene J. Puskar/AP Images

Scouts are following Johnny Cueto around these days, showing up in large groups anytime he's scheduled to pitch.

The Yankees have been there. The Tigers, too. When Cueto started last Friday in New York, two teams (the Dodgers and Astros) each had a pair of scouts at the game. The Giants have seen him.

They're there, they're watching, and yet you wonder if any of them can answer the two most important Cueto questions: Is he healthy? Is he available?

He could be a star of the July trade market, right up there with Cole Hamels. Or, we could all be wasting our time, and all those scouts might not be gathering anything more useful than frequent flyer miles and Marriott points.

The health question is pertinent, because twice in the past month the Reds have given Cueto extra time between starts to give his right elbow extra rest. Cueto insists it's nothing, and the Reds insist it's not serious, but even Reds manager Bryan Price understands why others wouldn't be so sure.

"Nobody sees it as significant," Price said. "But we'd like to see it be a non-issue."

This was last Friday, and Price said he'd need to see Cueto get through two starts with no questions to be fully convinced. The first of those starts was that night, and Cueto passed all the tests by throwing 112 pitches in six strong innings against the Mets. He even talked Price out of pulling him after the fifth inning, when his pitch count was at 96.

"Thank God, I feel really good," he said through an interpreter. "My elbow's OK. At this point, there's nothing wrong with my elbow."

Cueto's next start comes Wednesday afternoon against the Twins. Price said this was the second one he needs to be convinced, but will other teams feel the same way?

Cueto smiles and says he's healthy, but others will continue to wonder.
Cueto smiles and says he's healthy, but others will continue to wonder.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

And even if they do, will the Reds be open for business?

It's easy to make the argument that they should be. They're miles behind the Cardinals in the National League Central. They've been below .500 since the middle of May. And after they won three straight series to provide a hint of hope, they went into Citi Field and were swept in a three-game series by the Mets, handing back all those gains in just one lost weekend.

"I like the way we're playing," Price said before the sweep. "But you can't expect to have a successful season losing two out of every three on the road.

"I think we have a better team [than the record shows]. I still look at our lineup and say, 'That's a nice lineup.' I think it's a team that should compete every day. But we were picked to finish fourth or fifth, and so far all we've done is live up to the expectations."

They have an owner who doesn't like giving up, and they have the All-Star Game coming to town in a couple of weeks. With the wild card still within reach, the Reds can justify not racing into anything.

But Cueto will be a free agent at season's end, and the Reds don't expect to have the financial power to keep him. His pending free agency plays into this in multiple ways, because with a big contract in his future, he has a personal interest in both staying healthy and in convincing other teams that his elbow isn't a concern.

Even after being pushed back twice, Cueto is on pace to throw 200 innings for what would be the third time in four years (he led the National League with 243.2 innings in 2014). Even with the questions, his ERA is under 3.00 again (as it has been for five straight seasons), and his other numbers are those of an ace.

"Not quite vintage Cueto, but close," said one scout who watched a recent start.

If the Reds put him on the trade block, someone will take a chance. If his health weren't an issue, any team in need of pitching would push hard for him, because Cueto's $10 million salary is a bargain for the type of pitcher he has been.

He says he doesn't worry about it.

"I don't make that decision," Cueto said. "I try to pitch and help the team. They'll make that decision."

He doesn't know. We don't know.

The trade market can be tough to read in the best of circumstances, because teams don't show their cards and don't mind spreading disinformation, or at least allowing it to spread. The Cueto market is tougher to read than most—in part because of his elbow, in part because of his team.

For now, all the scouts can do is watch.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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