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Cueto needs to step up or risk being reviled in KC

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Unless you pitch better, you won't be missed.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

I loved the Johnny Cueto trade.

I loved it. The Royals gave up John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan, and Cody Reed for Cueto's services over the final half of the season and the playoffs. It was, more or less, a steal. Kansas City was uninterested in giving Lamb, the blonde lefty starter who was having a great renaissance in AAA Omaha three years after Tommy John surgery, any opportunities at the Major League level. Despite a 2.67 ERA and a strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings in Omaha, they elected to give Joe Blanton and Yohan Pino five starts when Jason Vargas went down with arm injury instead of Lamb.

Furthermore, the Royals did not seem to know what to do with Finnegan, the short lefty who became the first player in baseball history to participate in the College World Series and professional World Series in the same year. Finnegan undulated between AA Northwest Arkansas (where he made three starts and two relief appearances), Omaha (where he made four starts and two relief appearances) and Kansas City (where he made 14 relief appearances). The Royals valued his expediency as a lefty reliever and upside as a starter, but where wary of his long-term viability as a starter, and his travels suggest this struggle.

Finally, Cody Reed was a minor league arm with upside, a power lefty--but one who was already 22 without much success in AA. The Royals gave up two underutilized prospects that did not figure into their plans and a wild card arm. A steal.

In return, the Royals received Johnny Cueto. Cueto was the ace the Royals desperately needed. With a wildly oscillating Yordano Ventura, a terrible Jeremy Guthrie, a question mark in Kris Medlen, a regressing Chris Young, a regressing Danny Duffy, and an injured Vargas, the rotation was the one weakness the Royals possessed, especially after acquiring Ben Zobrist in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. Cueto would anchor the rotation and be a leader.

Cueto has been an unequivocal, emphatic failure in Kansas City. I personally will not miss him. Neither will many other Royals fans. But if the Royals lose this ALCS, his reputation in Kansas City will worsen; he will become a hated figure here.

Let's be clear--I do not want to be angry at Cueto. Nobody does. Nobody expects perfection, either; James Shields and Zack Grienke both had absolute duds of games in their stellar years in Kansas City, and we still wished the best for them. Cueto is easy to root for, with an iconic haircut and a unique shimmy delivery that would please even the coldest of hearts.

But Cueto, ironically, has no wiggle room. He has not built up years of good will with the organization. The price to acquire him was also more than just dollars--it was actual players. The Reds control Lamb, Finnegan, and Reed for a combined 18 years. They are willing to take the gambles that the Royals were not, as Finnegan and Lamb ended the season as starters for the Reds. And while Finnegan, Lamb, and Reed is a steal for the services of an ace, it is a gross overpay for the services of anything less. Less it has been.

In Kansas City, Cueto has pitched 16 games for a total of 83.1 innings. That's an average of about 5.1 innings per game, which is poor. Cueto has allowed 57 earned runs in those innings, good for a 6.16 ERA, which is close to 'Death Star exploding Alderaan' bad. But it's not just pure surface numbers. His regular season FIP with the Royals is 4.06, his postseason FIP 5.20.

And there's reason to believe that something is wrong with him, at least mechanically--Eno Sarris noted this morning that Cueto's changeup hasn't had as much vertical drop as in the past, and that a significant portion of his poorest starts by average fastball velocity this year are from September and October. This matches up with the eye test that his mojo is clearly on vacation somewhere that is not Kansas City or Toronto. He has not been merely unlucky; he looks like part of him is missing.

This Johnny Cueto has crippled two separate playoff games, which is the antithesis of why Dayton Moore acquired him. In Game One of the ALDS against the Houston Astros, Cueto coughed up four runs in the first three innings. He stumbled through the next three innings, allowing a baserunner in each, but limited the damage. Still, the offense bailed him out of the loss with a comeback in the sixth and seventh innings.

And then there was last night. Oh, last night. Cueto's command was sketchy, as it required him to utilize 20+ pitches to get through the first inning. He gave up three runs in the second inning. Six more scored in the third inning, as Cueto allowed the first four batters to reach without recording an out. Troy Tulowitzki destroyed one of his pitches, a 420-foot bomb to mark an exclamation upon his baseball flatulence.

Cueto was charged with eight earned runs, allowing seven of them himself. Josh Donaldson, probable American League MVP, pulverized a pretty good curveball* from Kris Medlen to score Cueto's inherited runner for the final run.

*I know it will be referred to by lazy analysts as a 'hanging curveball,' but check out the video. It had good break and was going exactly where Perez put his glove. Donaldson just crushed it.

The Royals offense scored eight runs. Cueto's historically terrible performance doomed the Royals on a night in which they were able to strike against several Blue Jays pitchers.

Where does all of this put Cueto's reputation in Kansas City? I am personally uninterested in seeing him pitch in a Royal uniform, not because I have a grudge against him, but because every other Royals' starter but Guthrie has outpitched Cueto since he arrived. But Cueto still has time to rescue his legacy. He will almost certainly start again, either in Game Seven of this ALCS or at the beginning of the World Series. Another good start or two will help immensely.

Look, Cueto is a hired gun. That's all he ever was. Expectations were high for him, yes. But nobody thought Cueto would be this bad. Because of his previous success as a starter, he will continue to get chances. Because of his cost of acquisition, he will continue to get chances. As Andy McCullough said on Twitter, the only way Cueto doesn't pitch Game Seven of the ALCS is if the Royals win it in six.

Whether or not that is the right choice is irrelevant. It is what it is; this is how high-priced acquisitions are handled. Because of that, Cueto will keep getting chances. The trade made sense at the time, and knowing what Kansas City knows I would do that trade again and again--this is all on Cueto. I hope he doesn't fail. I like the guy and want him to succeed for himself and the Royals.

His reputation in Kansas City is on the line.