CINCINNATI — Seeing Johnny Cueto on the mound as the National League starter in the All-Star Game had to be bittersweet for Reds fans. You want to see your own do well. But all in Redsland have to be wondering:
When will we see a pitcher like Johnny Beisbol in a Reds uniform again? Can the Reds develop another ace?
Cueto was the first No. 1 starter the Reds developed since Mario Soto. Soto, one of Cueto’s mentors, was the last Reds pitcher to start an All-Star Game (1983). In the 25 years between Soto’s retirement and Cueto’s emergence, the Reds drafted nine pitchers with their first pick and countless others in later rounds. None came close to becoming an ace.
Cueto is one of the great Reds stories. He was signed for $35,000 by Johnny Almaraz. Almaraz took a look at Cueto on his way to the airport as favor to Cueto’s agent. Almaraz saw a short, fat kid who threw 91, 92 and took a chance.
That was 2004. Cueto was in the big leagues for good four years later. His development into a top-of-the-rotation starter coincided with the Reds' development into a playoff team. Cueto became what he was by learning how to pitch. He throws about six different pitches from three or four different windups and does all with great flair - i.e., he’s fun to watch.
The fact that Cueto is no longer a Red says a lot about the current state of franchise.
Can you see the Giants trading Madison Bumgarner or the Dodgers trading Clayton Kershaw? Cueto doesn’t have Bumgarner’s postseason resume or Kershaw’s overall numbers (nobody does), but Cueto is a legitimate ace.
So how did the Reds get backed into the corner where they had to trade Cueto?
Timing, bad luck and bad decisions.
Just before the 2014 season, the Reds signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract. At the time, Cueto still had a year and team option year left on his contract. He was coming off a year where he missed 20 starts because of three trips to the disabled list.
Remember where the Reds were at the time. They were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances. Optimism was high that good times would roll.
If Cueto showed he was healthy, they’d sign him in due time.
The 2014 season turned out to be a disaster for the Reds and the best year of Cueto’s career. He went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA. Suddenly his price was sky high.
At the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Reds were in need of an extreme makeover. But the Reds didn't go all in on a rebuild until later.
They traded Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon but tried to make one last run with Cueto and Mike Leake anchoring the rotation. When 2015 turned out worse than 2014, the Reds finally pulled the trigger and traded Cueto and Leake.
The Cueto trade generally got good reviews. Cueto went to Kansas City for three left-handers: John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed. All three start the second half in the Reds rotation. All three have struggled.
Reed, the youngest of the three at 23, is seen as a possible ace of the future. Reed is 0-4 with an 8.49 ERA. Finnegan, also 23, is 4-7 with a 4.71 ERA. Lamb, 25, is 1-6 with a 5.43 ERA.
Cueto struggled, too, his first year in the big leagues. He went 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA in 2008. But he was year younger than Reed and Finnegan, and his first start showed he had the stuff to dominate. He went seven innings and allowed only one hit (a home run) while striking out 10 and walking none.
None of the current three has had that kind of shutdown performance. It may come in time.
But Cueto is a safe bet every time he takes the mound. He struggled in Kansas City a bit after the trade, but he’s put that behind him with a 13-1 first half for the Giants.
With the state the Reds are in, even Cueto could not save this season. Still, it’s bittersweet to see the best pitcher the Reds produced in the last 25 years thriving with another club.