Fay: How would the Reds be now if Johnny Cueto was re-signed instead of Homer Bailey?

CINCINNATI -- Sports Illustrated recently dedicated an issue to “What If.” The Reds’ what if was “what if they had drafted Derek Jeter?”

You know the story. Scout Gene Bennett wanted to take Jeter but was overruled by scouting director Julian Mock. The Reds drafted Chad Mottola instead. Mottola’s career didn’t turn quite as well as Jeter’s. What would have happened to the Reds, the Yankees and baseball in general if the Reds had drafted Jeter is mind-boggling.

With old friend Johnny Cueto in town, it’s a good time to look at a more recent what if: What if the Reds had re-signed Cueto instead of Homer Bailey?

Homer Bailey pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 19, 2014. (Justin K. Aller | Getty Images)

It’s pretty clear that the Reds would have gotten a lot more for their money. Since Bailey signed in February of 2014, he is 11-9 with a 4.20 ERA over 31 starts and 180 innings. Cueto over the same span is 53-28 with a 2.91 ERA in 104 starts and 712 1/3 innings.

Luck plays into any move, and the Reds' luck with Bailey has been beyond horrible.

Would signing Cueto instead of Bailey have been franchise-altering, i.e, would it have staved off the long rebuild?

The Reds were eight games under .500 at 46-54 when they traded Cueto on July 25, 2015 to the Kansas City Royals. He was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA. If he were under contract, the Reds wouldn’t have traded him, and the Reds of that year wouldn’t have been so awful. Remember, Mike Leake was traded a few days later, leaving the Reds with an all-rookie rotation.

As a result, the Reds went 18-43 after the deadline. That reinforced the need for a major rebuild. The trades of Cueto and Leake were followed by trades of Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce.

The Reds undoubtedly would have been much better if the Cueto remained with the team for the rest of 2015.

Would they have been good enough to think they could contend in 2016? Doubtful.

Still, given what’s happened since, it’s hard to fathom why the Reds made the decision they did. But you’ve got to look at where they were at the time to judge the decision fairly. A lot of factors went into it:

  • Cueto was signed through 2015 when Bailey got the six-year, $105 million deal. Bailey was the ’14 season away from free agency, so he was the priority.
  • Bailey actually had the better recent health history going into 2014. He threw 208 innings in 2012 and he threw 209 innings in 2013. Cueto was limited to 11 starts in 2013. He had been limited to 24 starts in the 2011.
  • The Reds were on an upward arc when Bailey was signed. They had been to playoffs three of the previous four years. The thought -- at least in the owner’s box -- was that the good times would continue to roll. Attendance would continue to tick up, and the money would be there to sign Cueto.

Then Cueto went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and finished second in the National League Cy Young vote in 2014. The team finished 76-86 that season. So the good times stopped rolling, while Cueto’s price tag increased.

The Reds never even made Cueto an offer in 2015.

Ironically, the deal Cueto signed with the Giants -- six years, $130 million -- is worth slightly less from 2016 to 2019 than Bailey’s deal.

The one thing you can never predict with long-term deals is the health of the player. For the Reds, it could not have gone much worse than it has with Bailey. But a healthy Bailey has never been as good as a healthy Cueto over the course of a season.

If the Reds had signed Cueto, would it have been franchise-changing? Not likely.

That first half of ’14 shows that. Cueto was his dominant self until the trade and the Reds were barely playing over .500 on the days of his starts.

But it’s one interesting what if to ponder. 

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at johnfayman@aol.com

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