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Why the Royals should not trade for Johnny Cueto

The cost for a rent-a-player is just too high.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start by saying there is an argument to be made that the Royals should trade for Johnny Cueto. This article however is arguing they shouldn't. It doesn't mean it's wrong or right, but it's an argument against trading for Cueto (or really any short term, expensive asset).

A few days ago, ESPN's Christina Kahrl urged the Royals to trade for Johnny Cueto in an effort to claim "total victory." In the article she mentions the Royals strong AL Central title hopes:

Why is that? Because they're a team without any real weaknesses, while benefiting from some significant strengths.

What's kind of strange here is that Kahrl  says the Royals have no real weaknesses (an opinion I strongly disagreed with) yet she urges the Royals to go "all in" for buying Cueto. Generally a team with a strong hold on their division and a team with no holes (like the Nationals perhaps) shouldn't be really looking to make a wholesale move to go all in. The Nationals aren't looking to bring in a big name player (especially one with only three months of control remaining) but instead are looking for ancillary pieces to shore up some backup or specific role spots.

The Royals most certainly have a weakness: starting pitching. Over the past 7 days the Royals rotation has a 5.40 ERA. Over the past 14 days it's more tolerable at 4.32 and over the past 30 is 4.20. Even though those aren't outrageously bad, the league average ERA this year is 3.83 so far so we're talking at least half a run higher. The Royals are much more liked by FIP (which is scaled the same as ERA: 3.83) are they have a 4.73 (7 days), 3.74 (14 days), and 3.87 (30 days) over different intervals.

What's most worrisome isn't necessarily what the Royals rotation has done (bottom third in WAR, ERA, and FIP) but what they are projected to do. From my article linked earlier:

Only the Rockies project to get fewer wins from their rotation the rest of the season. In fact, depth charts projects that two current free agents would be better options than most or all of the Royals current rotation.

I mean...the Royals don't have to upgrade the rotation, but there's a ton of room for improvement. Furthermore it's not like the marginal difference from an upgrade will be small. For instance, sure the Nationals could upgrade their rotation, but they've got a strong projection as is, and the improvement from #1 to even more #1 isn't as big as the improvement from #29 to #20.

There's an obvious need for improvement, but the improvement doesn't have to be as drastic as acquiring Johnny Cueto.

My main concern with trading for Cueto, besides the cost (which I'll get to later) is the team control.

Cueto by all means has been a good pitcher so far, and projects to continue that same excellence. He's been worth 2.6 wins so far (by fWAR) and projects to be worth another 1.9 wins over the next 94 innings (basically the same amount of innings he's pitched so far) so there's no lag or regression necessarily projected. That's the twelfth-best pitching projection in baseball and is almost worth everything Yordano Ventura did last year over the course of his 180 innings.

Cueto is the epitome of an expensive, short term asset. He's only under control for three more months, the Royals are almost certainly not going to re-sign him, and he won't come cheap. Even at the start of the year Cueto wouldn't have been an easy buy, but as we get closer to the trade deadline and the price of targets increases (alongside Cueto's good performance) his price has gone up.

Zack Greinke had been better than Cueto when the Angels acquired him with only a few months of control remaining and it cost them the #55 prospect in baseball (per Baseball America - Jean Segura), and two lottery-ish tickets in Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena (both unranked).

That package would be like Brandon Finnegan (exactly #55 per BA this year) and perhaps Christian Binford and someone like Julio Pinto or Sam Selman. Would I trade that package? Yeah...probably. Say what you want about Finnegan, he's been ineffective as a starter, failing to go past 3 innings in games (though not necessarily a fault of his own, rather than the organization's decision) and seems like he's becoming more likely to be a bullpen piece (much to our dismay).

However, I don't think the Reds would take that package. Not all #55 prospects are equal of course. Segura was dinged because of his injuries (rightfully so) and questions if he could stay at shortstop (rightfully so). So far in his MLB career Segura has only hit the DL once (this past May) and it was due to a due to a pinkie injury. Meanwhile he has stayed at shortstop for his career, and while he hasn't been good necessarily at the position, he hasn't been awful. The Brewers bet on #55 Segura would be different than their bet on #55 Finnegan.

So really the Reds would be targeting Raul Mondesi (if they wanted a bat) or Sean Manaea (if they wanted a pitcher). Mondesi was recently just ranked as the 12th best prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus and is probably the best middle infield prospect in baseball not named JP Crawford (we're ruling out Corey Seager who isn't sticking at shorstop).

Mondesi isn't Jurickson Profar or Carlos Correa, but he's still a very well loved by the industry prospect who's a mortal lock to stay at shortstop with plus speed and fielding and dreamy projection in the bat. I think he could be Elvis Andrus at his peak (a 4 win player) with the a possible floor of Alcides Escobar (a 1.5-2 win player). The floor isn't a sexy profile, but a near average player with room for upside for six (or seven-ish) controlled years is a valuable asset.

Manaea is the #1 prospect in the system according to myself and in my mid-season update he'll still be #1 despite some missed time to begin the year (which by the way he's been awesome so far). I gave him a 55 OFP which is a 3-4 win player at peak (which is a bit shy of what Cueto is currently). The Royals don't have much lower-risk pitching prospects in the minors (outside of your normal TINSTAAPP) as Kyle Zimmer, Christian Binford, Miguel Almonte, and Finnegan all come with their warts or caveats. Maybe Manaea isn't the Royals consensus #1 prospect, but he's almost certainly their 2nd best.

Are you willing to trade the Royals two best minor league assets for 3 months of Johnny Cueto (and it's certainly just three months as there is no delusion here that he'll re-sign with Kansas City)? I'm not.

The Royals have a really, really big exodus of talent coming a few years from now as Matt pointed out. As with our own personal lives, our workplace, and any business anywhere, current cost have to come with future considerations. It's easy to say "win now, forget about later, flags fly forever" but how willing are you to trade one of the Royals best minor league assets (and one of the best minor league assets in all of baseball with Mondesi) for 2 extra wins in 2015 and whatever could happen in the playoffs?

Kahrl says:

So put all of that together, and the one thing the Royals need is obvious: They need a No. 1 starter. Not because it will make that big of a difference in terms of their winning the Central, but because they want to win short-season series in October.

I don't think that's true. The Royals were not the best team in the American League last year and in fact barely made the playoffs. They were a Nori Aoki sac fly away from going home early last year too. There's no guarantee in the playoffs. The best team in the American League  last year (LAA Angels) got swept by the wild card team. The team with the best pitcher in baseball last year (LA Dodgers/Clayton Kershaw) didn't get past the NLDS despite having him pitch in almost half the games.

The other leg of the NLDS had Jake Peavy beating Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister beating Madison Bumgarner, and Yusmeiro Petit beating Tanner Roark. In the ALDS Chris Tillman beat Max Scherzer and Bud Norris beat David Price.

There is just so much randomness and luck in a 5-7 game series that just because you have an ace (or in the case of Kershaw/Scherzer/Bumgarner/Strasburg/Price - the best pitcher(s) in baseball) doesn't mean you can just ride their backs to a World Series title.

Kahrl also mentions:

If the Giants can bump a guy like Tim Lincecum from their October rotation, none of these guys has an excuse.

Just to be clear, Tim Lincecum hasn't been Tim Lincecum since 2011. Last he he was replacement level. The year before; league average (not that that is bad). In 2012; below average (1.0 fWAR). Bumping Lincecum last year out of the rotation would be equivalent to the Royals bumping Chris Young or Yohan Pino out of the post season rotation.

It's clear the Royals need a rotation upgrade, and I suggested a few players last week.

A solution? It depends on the costs, of course.

Would Mat Latos, Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, Colby Lewis, or Mike Fiers cost you Mondesi/Manaea? No, I don't think so or more so they shouldn't (aside from Buchholz perhaps).

Buchholz might be the best overall player when you account for value + contract. He has a pair of team options for $13M and $13.5 million for the next two years and that would cover what's likely the Royals best window of contention. Who knows what the Red Sox are asking for or would want. Of course they'd want Mondesi and trading Mondesi for 2 1/2 seasons of Buchholz would be better than a half-season for Cueto. That's something they should be more open to if they are willing to move Mondesi and it puts them in a better position for 2016 and 2017 (but 2018 is still worrisome).

Latos is still a half season deal, but he should cost considerably less than Cueto, but of course doesn't offer the higher projection.

Meanwhile Mike Fiers still has several years of team control (not Fa eligible until 2020) and is on the sinking ship that is the Milwaukee Brewers. He certainly wouldn't cost a Mondesi/Manaea.

Elsewhere there is Wade Miley who isn't eligible for free agency until 2019 and projects as good as the other pitchers above. He was just moved to Boston this past December but could be in play given the underwhelming Boston season. He was traded for a not so impressive package of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, and Raymel Flores.

Colby Lewis most certainly isn't going to return any substantive package, but projects for a just a hair more than half a win (double Jeremy Guthrie/Chris Young though). However the Rangers are hovering near .500 and might be inclined to not necessarily be sellers, though Lewis doesn't represent a valuable asset really as he's a FA at the end of this year.

We can run some scenarios here. The first condition assumes that the Royals drop Guthrie and Young from the rotation. Guthrie is a complete sunk cost, projects to be near replacement level and is done with KC after this year after the Royals buyout his option (good for you Jeremy Guthrie). Chris Young is a little bit more of "thanks for your help" as he projects to be the same as Guthrie going forward (near replacement level).

Also, Johnny Cueto projects to be worth 2 wins for the rest of the season and 0 wins after for KC. If we remove Chris Young and add Cueto and leave Guthrie it's a an even net move of 2 wins (all from Cueto).


Player Proj +/-
Guthrie 0.3 -0.3
Young 0.3 -0.3
Latos 1.1 1.1
Buchholz 1.3 1.3
Total 1.8

+Miley/Buchholz - The Boston Trade

This might be the most costly package, but it returns a near value of Cueto (of course, with Cueto you only remove one rotation spot so it's +Cueto  -Guthrie -Young vs -Guthrie -Young +Latos +Buchholz) but still nets you near the same. This package though gets you two additional years of control than Cueto alone. Buchholz might cost Mondesi, but at least in return you get the additional two years of value from Clay than 3 months of Cueto.

Player Proj +/-
Guthrie 0.3 -0.3
Young 0.3 -0.3
Miley 0.9 0.9
Buchholz 1.3 1.3
Total 1.6

This is a combo package and the Royals only need to deal exclusively with the Red Sox. It's a little less return than the package above, but it still represents a net gain of 1.6 wins (near Cueto) and you get to keep both Buchholz and Miley for several years after.


Player Proj +/-
Guthrie 0.3 -0.3
Young 0.3 -0.3
Latos 1.1 1.1
Fiers 0.9 0.9
Total 1.4

This is a rental for Latos, but a long term keeper for Fiers. We're getting in the range where Cueto is clearly the better projection on the field, but when you add in cost/control then it's a different picture.


Player Proj +/-
Guthrie 0.3 -0.3
Young 0.3 -0.3
Miley 0.9 0.9
Lewis 0.6 0.6
Total 0.9

These are the two lower projected guys and basically Lewis nets out Guthrie/Young and Miley is the addition.

+Miley/Fiers - The Long Term Deal

Player Proj +/-
Guthrie 0.3 -0.3
Young 0.3 -0.3
Miley 0.9 0.9
Fiers 1.1 1.1
Total 1.4

This deal gives you the longest team control out of the group. Miley is controlled until after 2018 and Fiers until after 2019.

The net improvement for the Royals doesn't have to come from Cueto. There are other options that are cheaper and give longer control. The Royals need to be looking for any possible rotation upgrade at any reasonable price rather than having to chase the flashiest name.

A 1-1.5 win upgrade isn't sexy, but pitching Clay Buchholz/Latos - Latos/Miley - Miley/Fiers every five days is sexier than pitching Guthrie/Young.