The Reds did a smart thing. Rather than spend well over $100 million on a pitcher with elbow concerns who turns 30 next year, they exchanged him for three pitchers who should contribute for a 10th of the cost. They weren't a Johnny Cueto away from contending, and if quality over quantity wasn't working, they might as well try the other way around.
The Reds did a sad thing, though. These decisions can be smart and sad at the same time, practical and soul-crushing. It's not just that the Reds traded away a fan favorite, a player who moves the shirseys in the team store, though that absolutely compounds the sadness. The Reds' dream is dead on two fronts, one obvious and one a little more esoteric. Reds fans are right to care about one, and probably no one cares about the other but me. I'm gonna share both because it's not like you want to work.
The sadness of Johnny Cueto leaving the Reds, in two parts:
Sadeness, Part I: The window is officially closed
It was probably closed after last year, really. There were other moves and events that probably signaled this era of contending Reds baseball was probably over. Trading Mat Latos, for one. Homer Bailey's injury, for another. Going an entire offseason with Jason Marquis as the biggest free agent signing was a pretty bad sign. Starting Jason Marquis on purpose was a really bad sign. But a rotation with Cueto and a lineup with Joey Votto is always a head start worth paying attention to. And if some of the youngsters developed in front of their eyes, like Billy Hamilton, Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani ... hey, it wasn't silly to dream.
It was a flying dream, and the Reds were there with their next-door neighbor (who wasn't really their next-door neighbor), and now that it's over, you wondered how you could have been convinced it was real in the first place. Cueto is gone, and the Reds' best chance at a World Series in a quarter-century has officially passed them by. Don't forget that before Cueto, the Reds were working on a mini-drought of their own, going 14 seasons without a postseason berth. The Reds went 22 seasons between postseason wins -- as in, one game, not a series -- and it's now been 21 seasons since their last postseason series win.
It wasn't supposed to be like that. Consider what the 2010 Reds had:
- A 23-year-old Jay Bruce cranking 25 homers and likely to improve
- A 26-year-old Joey Votto, in his prime and the MVP
- A 25-year-old Drew Stubbs, finally putting the hit tool to use and complementing his defense
- Four starting pitchers 24 or younger, all with prospect pedigrees and some success in the majors
That is a blueprint for sustained success, and the Reds did excellent things with it. The 2012 staff had one of the better adjusted ERAs in league history, and the team won 97 games even though they had an offense that was average, at best. The 2015 Reds might have the better lineup, really, but the 2012 team was filled with above-average pitchers, from top to bottom. Only one pitcher (Mike Leake) on the team pitched more than 10 innings with an adjusted ERA worse than the league average. The Reds used six starting pitchers all season, with the sixth starter getting only one spot start at the back end of a doubleheader.
The whole time, Cueto was pitching magnificently. There was an injury scare, but there was never a "What's wrong with Cueto?" scare that can affect every pitcher. When he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he was healthy most of the time. Pitchers like him are the foundation of extended success, and the Reds used him as wax wings to get so very close.
Now the Reds have to start over and look for the next Cueto. It's even harder than it sounds. Not only will they have to develop or acquire starting pitchers, they'll have to time those pitchers to coincide with a lineup worth a dang. They already had that with Cueto and the young hitters. Now the hitters are older and more expensive, and the best starting pitcher in decades is gone. Age goblins got some of the veterans. Free agency did a number on the spare parts around the stars. Disappointing progress from anyone who isn't Todd Frazier was a drag, too.
There is some hope, sure. The Reds got three arms in exchange for 10 starts of Cueto, all of them with a fair amount of promise. The Reds made a smart trade, again, but it still feels like the post-election party after a rough loss.
Sadeness, Part II: The dream of the Reds franchise pitcher is also over
Again, this probably appeals only to me. Maybe you. I can't stop thinking about it, though. Put simply: Johnny Cueto was about three or four good seasons away from being the best Reds pitcher in franchise history.
I see that look. You're not impressed. Think about it, though. The Reds have been around for 134 years. At no point in the 1900s did they stumble across someone named Cannondad Wixley who threw 20 seasons and made the Hall of Fame. They've won five world championships and nine pennants, but none of them with a pitcher who would be considered for a statue outside of the ballpark. They've had good pitchers for extended stretches, and great pitchers in short bursts.
Fine, you'll need context. There are 16 teams with over 100 years of history -- the original 16 teams around before expansion in the '60s. Here are those teams, with their most valuable starting pitcher (according to Baseball-Reference's career WAR calculations):
- Twins - Walter Johnson, 152.3 WAR
- Giants - Christy Mathewson, 96.2
- Braves - Warren Spahn, 92
- Cardinals - Bob Gibson, 81.9
- Red Sox - Roger Clemens, 81.3
- A's - Eddie Plank, 73.7
- Phillies - Robin Roberts, 69.7
- White Sox - Red Faber, 68.4
- Orioles - Jim Palmer, 68.1
- Indians - Bob Feller,65.2
- Dodgers - Dazzy Vance, 61.6
- Tigers - Hal Newhouser, 59.0
- Yankees - Whitey Ford, 53.9
- Cubs - Fergie Jenkins, 53.2
- Pirates - Babe Adams, 49.9
- Reds - Eppa Rixey, 40.1
The links go to the all-time lists for each franchise. Note that there are brilliant pitchers who aren't listed, too, like Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, along with dozens of others. There are expansion-era teams who have done better, too. The Mets with Tom Seaver and the Blue Jays with Dave Stieb. Randy Johnson gave more value to the Diamondbacks in his eight years than any pitcher has given to the Reds. The Angels (Chuck Finley), Mariners (Felix Hernandez), Royals (Kevin Appier), Astros (Roy Oswalt), and Nationals (Steve Rogers) all topped Rixey, who is widely considered one of the weaker Hall of Famers ever elected by the Veteran's Committee.
The Reds have never had a franchise-defining workhorse in their 134 years. They've had pitchers like Jose Rijo and Mario Soto come close, only to fall to injuries. Cueto was the Reds' best chance since Rijo, and now the boulder is at the bottom of the hill. They're gonna have to start allllll over.
This is more trivia than indictment. The Reds have been a successful franchise with incredible highs. The Big Red Machine didn't need no stinkin' ace. Still, Cueto had a chance to be the best pitcher in franchise history, and now that chance is gone. It's not just the relative obscurity of the all-time best pitcher, either. It's the ancient list of all-time best Reds pitchers, too. Look at how long it's been since most of the franchise top-20 pitchers were active:
|9||Johnny Vander Meer||27.1||1937||1949|
Just a handful of pitchers have enjoyed sustained success with the Reds since JFK was elected. Cueto wasn't a shoo-in to top the charts -- considering his elbow issues, he might have been something of a long shot. He was still the best chance the Reds had in decades, though.
No pressure, Brandon Finnegan.
The common link between these two disappointing parts of the Cueto trade, though, is the sense of starting over. The Reds were close to breaking through with their young group of hitters and pitchers. They were close to finally getting their franchise-defining pitcher for the history books. And now they'll have to start all over.
Still, the dream is over. Also, the dream is over. The Reds did the practical thing, but that doesn't mean the trade wasn't a total downer on a couple different levels.
Didn't mean to bum you out, Reds fans. Brighter days are around the corner, I'm sure, and you can look at the Astros and make yourself feel better. It takes only three years to go from scorched earth to postseason contender, sometimes just two. And just like the Latos trade, the returns from the Cueto deal should arrive sooner, rather than later.
Gonna go listen to some Sun Kil Moon and sit in the shower for a bit.
SB Nation presents: A Reds' sing-a-long