No rumor is too small this time of year. Especially now that obvious trade target Jonathan Sanchez has been dealt to Kansas City, the Twins are going to get more creative with their trade strategies. How about Johnny Cueto?
The other day, this article appeared in the Star Tribune. It mentioned that a Cincinnati radio station said the Twins have contacted the Reds about Cueto. This is the baseball equivalent of an urban legend (my cousin totally knows a guy who said that Cueto woke up in a bathtub full of ice with his kidneys missing), but the Twins need pitchers, so let’s see what Cueto would bring to the table.
Cueto won’t turn 26 until just before Spring Training, but he has already been a full-time starting pitcher in the Majors for four seasons. Overall, he is 41-37 with a 3.83 ERA and 532 strikeouts in 687 innings. But last year his ERA plummeted to a stellar 2.31, which would have been second best the National League if he had pitched six more innings. Don’t expect Cueto to be among the league leaders in ERA every year, though. His 2011 BABIP was just .247 – about 40 points below his career average, and his strikeout total actually dropped in 2011 to 6.0 per nine innings. His 2010 season, when he went 12-7, 3.64, is probably more in line with what we could expect from Cueto on a regular basis.
He has developed a reputation for his unusual pitching style, which has been compared to Luis Tiant (who was briefly a former Twin and is one of the candidates for Veterans Committee induction into the Hall of Fame this year). During his windup, Cueto turns his back to the hitter then erupts toward the plate. He uses that windup to throw a lively fastball that averaged 93.4 mph last season, a slider at around 84, an occasional 90 mph cutter, an 84 mph changeup, and a 79 mph curveball. Fangraphs rated his fastball very highly for 2011, but his slider was quite effective as well.
How Would He Help the Twins?
He would help the Twins by being a young, talented starting pitcher. Since a young, talented starter is probably the team’s number one need, Cueto would be a huge boost. He isn’t really an ace at this point, but his track record makes him a solid #2 starter. Keep in mind, though, that Cueto is still young. He may well improve over the next couple of seasons. He’d also cost a lot less money than any of the proven starting pitchers on the market, at least for 2011 (see below).
What is His Downside?
Well, durability is an issue. Cueto made at least 30 starts each year from 2008 through 2010, but he never exceeded 185 innings. Last year he was limited to 24 starts and 156 innings due to an early season shoulder problem and a late season back strain. And then there’s the fighting. In August of 2010, a little scuffle erupted between the Reds and Cardinals. Cueto was right in the middle of the action. Apparently, Cueto erupted into a hurricane of vicious kicks, and he managed to mangle a couple Cards in the process. Sounds like he’s kind of a Martin Riggs-style loose cannon.
What Would He Cost?
Cueto is under contract for three more years. He’s due to make $5.4 million in 2012, $7.4 million in 2013, and $10 million in 2014. There’s also a $10 million option for 2015. What the Reds would want in return is another story. The guy had a great ERA last year, so that will inflate his value. He may even be one of the Reds’ untouchables. Then again, the Twins just re-hired Wayne Krivsky, a man with firsthand knowledge of the Reds organization. I doubt the Twins would have wasted time asking after Cueto if they didn’t think the Reds would part with him. Just a guess, but I would think the Reds would ask for two of the Twins’ top 10 prospects in return.
The more I read about Cueto, the more I like. There are some professional sports teams that are filled with criminals and troublemakers (I am looking at you, Vikings). Adding a guy with anger issues like Cueto to a team like that would be like dropping a bomb on a nuclear waste dump. But the Twins, if anything, don’t have enough fire in their bellies. An explosive player like Cueto might be just the thing to ignite the clubhouse.
As a pitcher, he would definitely be an asset. He’s young, not incredibly expensive, and he has an intriguing arsenal of pitches. If the Twins could somehow acquire Cueto, it would be a major offseason victory. For the record, I’m not saying that Cueto is definitely available. It’s entirely possible the Reds laughed and hung up when the Twins called. But if he is available, the Twins should pounce.