The Reds are five games below the .500 mark and currently sit 10.5 games back in the NL Central — a poor start that has many anticipating that the Reds will be sellers come the trade deadline. Bryce Dixon, the agent for Johnny Cueto, tells MLB Network Radio’s Jim Bowden that while the team hasn’t indicated they’re ready or willing to trade Cueto, that scenario is probably the most reasonable for the team, barring a turnaround. Says Dixon (audio link):
“They’ve made no indications to Johnny that they want to trade him, but reading the tea leaves, if they fall out of contention, it seems to make sense from their end. 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.”
Dixon has somewhat of a biased point of view, as a trade would make Cueto ineligible for a qualifying offer and strengthen his upcoming free agent stock to an extent. Cueto, however, is the type of free agent that will be so highly sought after that the qualifying offer has a relatively negligible impact on his stock; a club willing to shell out $150MM+ for a player is not likely to be overly swayed by the potential loss of a draft pick.
Cueto currently sits at No. 3 on MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings, but as Tim Dierkes noted on that list, there’s an argument to be made that Cueto is actually a better pitcher than David Price, who currently ranks second. While Cueto’s injury-shortened 2013 season — he threw just 60 2/3 innings — is an unquestionable strike against him, he topped 200 innings in 2012 and led the NL with 243 2/3 innings last season. Dating back to 2011, Cueto has an incredible 2.53 ERA, and his K/9 rate has increased from 6.0 in 2011 to 7.1 in 2012, 7.6 in 2013 and 8.9 in 2014. He’s at 8.3 in 2015 and has, to this point, shown the best control of any season in his career. If Cueto finishes the year with 200-plus innings and a fifth-consecutive season of a sub-3.00 ERA, he’ll at least have a claim as the market’s top free agent. Max Scherzer comparisons will be made.
I’d agree with Dixon’s assessment that the team will do better to trade Cueto than to take an extra pick at the end of next year’s first round. While Cueto is a pure rental, he’s an affordable one in terms of salary, making a reasonable $10MM in 2015. He’s also a difference-maker for any club looking to push into Wild Card contention or to bolster a likely playoff rotation. The benefit of giving Cueto the postseason starts that would otherwise go to a club’s current No. 3 or No. 4 starter is enormous, and it also allows a team to upgrade the bullpen by bumping its least effective relief pitcher for said No. 3/4 starter.
Dixon’s comments are also interesting in that they seem to indicate that he expects his client to sign with a new club this offseason. The notion that Cincinnati won’t be able to afford re-signing Cueto isn’t a new one, but it’s telling to hear Dixon eventually say that while Cueto would love to remain with the Reds, “…he’s pitched so well, that he’s going to command such a high price, that he might have priced himself out a market like Cincinnati.”
The one thing that could submarine both Cueto’s trade stock and free agent stock would be if a seemingly minor elbow ailment turns out to be more significant. Cueto missed his most recent start due to some stiffness in his right elbow, but an MRI revealed no structural damage. Via MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Cueto tossed a bullpen session yesterday and said that “every single pitch was good.” He’s slated to pitch tomorrow for the Reds, so the status of that elbow should become clear sooner rather than later.