Every year, somewhere, I write a piece for Opening Day about the deeper meaning of baseball. Last week, that place was The Hardball Times. It’s all about how most of us don’t really want to win the World Series every single year. We want to win sometimes and we want to follow players. I wrote that I don’t regret for a second that Barry Larkin vetoed the trade to the Mets back in 1999. I’m glad he finished his career as a Red. I’m glad that Votto will (most likely) finish his career as a Red.
And I’d sure like to see Johnny Cueto finish his career as a Red, too.
Right now, there’s little debate: Johnny Cueto is a wonderful pitcher. He finished second to Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young last year. We’ve seen him pitch brilliantly twice already, and later tonight, we’ll see him go again. It’s a pleasure every time. The Reds developed Cueto. They signed him and brought him up and extended him and now, the consensus is that he’s about to leave, either by trade later this year or free agency this offseason. The story goes like this: The team can’t afford him, and they shouldn’t sign him anyway because they don’t want to pay a gajillion dollars to an aging pitcher who will probably not be very good at the end of the contract. To which I say: But Johnny Cueto!
Let’s be clear—the Reds have not had a pitcher like Cueto in a long time. He’s already better than Soto was, and if he stays healthy, he’ll pass up Rijo (who really was amazing, go remind yourself if you need to). On an emotional level, I want Cueto extended. As a fan, I don’t have to look at it like a business decision. I can (and do, and will) pretend-spend all of Bob Castellini’s money that I want.
True, he’ll be 30 next year. The Reds will probably have to give him a seven- or eight-year contract north of $200 million in order to keep him, and that seems like a shaky investment. So, fine, let me put on my business man hat and try to justify it. First, pitchers tend to be good until they are not; that is, there is often a sudden and violent drop off, frequently the result of an injury that effectively ends the player’s career. Johnny Cueto has had injuries, but not to his arm, so that’s promising, at least.
Further, so many players are being extended by their original teams that the free agent market has become very thin in recent years. There is also research showing that players who are allowed to go to free agency perform less than those who are extended. This, presumably, is because teams know what they have and are extending good players sooner. If the Reds like what they see from Cueto, there’s good reason to hold onto him. Also, I can’t think of anyone the Reds will want to extend past their arb years for a long time. Winker and Lorenzen seems to be knocking on the door, but next year, they’ll still be six-years away from free agency. Mesoraco and Frazier just got deals. Cozart and Phillips likely aren’t getting future contracts from the club. Maybe Jay Bruce gets an additional extension, but he’ll be roughly the same age Cueto is now, and he hasn’t been nearly as good as Cueto. So, to put it simply, there isn’t anyone in the organization who’s going to demand a big contract for a long time—except Cueto.
I don’t know, exactly, how much the Reds will have to pay him. I assume it starts at $25-million a year and goes up from there. I also don’t know about the Reds’ budget. I don’t know how much money they’re expecting from the coming TV deal (though I do know they’d have more money if they’d stop giving too much of it to relief pitchers and below-average bench players). The truth may be that the money isn’t there and isn’t going to be there and that’s the end of the story.
But if the money is there—if it can be made to work—there are worse things they can try. For one, it will feel good to have Cueto finish as a Cincinnati Red (and business aside, that does matter; baseball makes us feel good, that’s why we watch). Then there’s the Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee scenario, which is a real possibility. In that circumstance, he continues to be what he has been until the end or nearly the end of his contract. (Yes, I know, there’s the Jose Rijo scenario, too.) The Reds (presumably) know how much money they have. They can take a fair guess at how much money they’re going to have. Much of it is going to be spent on free agents, who will inevitably be paid more than it feels like they are worth, because that is how the system works. Free agents are always a risk. Why take that on? You aren’t going to find Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw or a 27-year-old Joey Votto on the market anymore. The Reds have six years and no extensions to worry about in the interim. They have a pitcher they developed in-house, who is great and loved by the fans. You’ll have a hard time convincing me there’s a better risk out there than that one.