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Not a Rookie: Johnny Cueto

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Not a Rookie: Johnny Cueto

One of my favorite young pitchers is Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto. Let's take a look at how he developed as a prospect, and what the future may hold.

 

Johnny Cueto was signed by the Cincinnati Reds out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. The Reds had neglected their Latin American operation for several years, and the Cueto signing was one of their first moves to remedy this. After success in the Dominican Summer League in '04, Cueto moved up to the Gulf Coast Rookie League for 2005  He went 2-5 with a 5.02 ERA, but posted an impressive 38/8 K/BB ratio in 43 innings. At this point scouts considered him an intriguing and projectable live arm, but many worried that his short stature (just 5-10) would harm his durability. I did not put him in the 2006 Baseball Prospect Book, but would have rated him a Grade C prospect if I had.

The Reds moved Cueto up to Class A Dayton to begin 2006. He went 8-1, 2.59 with a 82/15 K/BB in 76 innings with 52 hits allowed, earning a promotion to Class A Sarasota at mid-season. He remained effective in the Florida State League, going 7-2, 3.50 with a 61/23 K/BB in 62 innings with 48 hits allowed, quite impressive for a 20 year old in his first full season. Scouts reported a 92-94 MPH fastball, hitting 95-96 at times. They also liked his slider, and a changeup taught to Cueto by former Reds star Mario Soto. Size and durability remained the main concern, but I gave him a Grade B- in my 2007 book and wrote that "a major breakout is possible" for '07.

Cueto began 2007 back with Sarasota and continued to pitch well, with a 3.33 ERA and a 72/21 K/BB in 78 innings, 72 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A Chattanooga at mid-season, he adjusted very well to better competition and went 6-3, 3.10 with a 77/11 K/BB in 61 innings with 52 hits allowed; note the excellent K/IP and K/BB ratios. Cueto made four late-season starts with Triple-A Louisville and excelled, with a 2.05 ERA and a 21/2 K/BB in 22 innings. He continued to pound the strike zone with a 92-95 MPH heater, refined the slider further, and developed the changeup into a very strong pitch. I was extremely impressed with him, especially the late-season surge, and gave him a Grade A- in the 2008 book, ranking him as the Number Seven pitching prospect in all of baseball, ahead of more-heralded teammate Homer Bailey.

I felt that Cueto could use some additional Triple-A time (I think that about almost every pitcher), but he ended up making Cincinnati's roster to begin the '08 season. He went 9-14, 4.81 with a 158/68 K/BB in 174 innings as a rookie, with 178 hits allowed and a 4.90 FIP. In 2009 he improved slightly, going 11-11, 4.41 with a 132/61 K/BB in 171 innings, 172 hits, 4.69 FIP.  He hasn't been excellent overall, but considering his lack of Triple-A experience, and his youth (he's only 24 entering 2010), I think Cueto has held his own in the majors.

What does the future hold?

I think there are two main points that will determine Cueto's future: development of his secondary pitches, and his health.

David Golebiewski at Fangraphs posted this interesting article in January, showing how Pitch F/X data indicates some deterioration in the quality of Cueto's slider last year. Also note that Cueto hasn't used the changeup much in the majors, even though the pitch was universally praised as a key to his minor league success in 2007. Problems with pitch selection and sequencing are common for young pitchers as they adjust to major league competition, and I personally think this is something Cueto can and will correct as he gains experience. 

Of greater concern is his health. You can't figure out how to pitch if you can't stay healthy, and Cueto was clearly gassed at times last year. He had problems with a strained hip flexor, then spent time on the DL with a sore shoulder in August. Although I don't think Dusty Baker has been especially abusive with Cueto, Reds observers were concerned that Cueto pitched too much in winter ball in '08-'09 and he was contractually barred from doing so this past winter. He has pitched decently this spring, and hopefully he'll be able to maintain his effectiveness for longer stretches in '10.

Looking for comparable pitchers to Cueto, Sim Scores bring up the following names through age 23: Jeff Weaver, Ben Sheets, Moose Haas, Jim Gott, Don Cardwell (solid inning eater from the 1960s), Melido Perez, Jim Clancy, Jay Hook, Zack Greinke, and George Hemming (late 19th century inning-eater).  PECOTA comps are Kyle Lohse, Randy Wolf, Melido Perez, Brad Radke, Brett Myers, Pete Harnisch, Jon Garland, Jeff Weaver, Scott Olsen, Jaret Wright, and C.C. Sabathia.

I find these lists quite intriguing. Perez and Weaver show up on both Sim Scores and PECOTA. The presence of Greinke and Sabathia as early career comps is also impressive. If these lists have any validity at all, it looks like Cueto has a very good chance to be a very solid major league starter (which most of these guys were), a small chance to be a genuine superstar in the Greinke/Sabathia mode, and a relatively small chance to completely fail.

We will see what his shoulder thinks about that.