With Johnny Cueto, Only One Team Has a Higher Probability of Winning the World Series Than the Royals
I told them not to do this. But since when does anyone listen to me?
Just days ago, I wrote a piece here on numberFire that suggested the Royals not go "all-in" on a starting pitcher. My argument was that I didn't think it was smart for a small-market team like Kansas City to use up its meager resources to grab one of the elite starters on the market, when they already had a 96.0% chance of making the playoffs, a 90.0 % chance of winning the division, and a 10.2% chance of winning it all (third-highest percentage in MLB).
But even with all that, the Royals' starting pitching was a mess, and it could have been something that would hurt them in the postseason.
General Manager Dayton Moore agreed with the consensus and decided to eschew my advice, trading for Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto on Sunday. In return, the Royals gave up Brandon Finnegan, their second-best prospect coming into the season and number-one draft pick from a year ago, who made his Major League debut just weeks after getting drafted. Kansas City also gave up minor league pitchers John Lamb and Cody Reed.
For the Royals, the addition of a seemingly-healthy Cueto is a huge difference-maker. There had been worries about his elbow and whether or not it was going to hold up for the rest of the year, but Johnny seemed to squelch a lot of those concerns with a dominant eight-inning, shutout performance on Saturday night.
On the season, Cueto is 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA (14th in MLB), a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.12 (24th), an fWAR of 2.9 (tied for 15th), and a nERD (the number of runs less a pitcher would give up per nine innings over a league average starter) of 2.09 (tied for 22nd). In 130 2/3 innings he has struck out 8.27 batters per nine innings and walked a career low 2.00 per nine. And he's done all this while pitching in one of the friendliest hitters parks in the Major Leagues.
Cueto immediately jumps to the top of a very shaky Kansas City rotation.
Coming into Sunday's action, Royals' starters were 21st in the Majors in ERA and were second-to-last in innings pitched. Yes, the Kansas City bullpen is ridiculously good, but even the best bullpen will break down due to overuse. And that was the big worry.
As a result of adding Cueto, our projections see the Royals' chances of making the playoffs increase from 96.0% to 98.4%, winning the division go up from 90.0% to 94.1% and winning the World Series increase from 10.2% to 16.0%, which would be second-best in baseball.
The Royals don't need a lot from their starters. Six innings, that's all the 'pen needs. But adding Cueto gives the team a reliable ace they can pencil in at the top of the rotation, with the 'pen knowing that, at least once every five days, they likely won't be called upon to come up with 12 outs.
As for my advice, I urged Kansas City not to add a top-tier rental because I was worried it would be a drastic hit to their farm system, which is the only way the Royals are going to stay competitive long-term. But the return heading to the Reds from Kansas City is not crippling to the Royals.
Finnegan was the prize pig at the fair for the Reds, who plan to use the Kansas City reliever as a starter. He was drafted 17th overall by the Royals last year and was brought up to the Majors just a few weeks later, in the heat of a pennant race, no less. The Royals have used him out of the bullpen, and in 31 1/3 career big league appearances he has a 2.59 ERA and a 3.78 FIP, averaging 8.90 K/9 and with a high walk rate of 4.02 per nine. And while he did come into the season as the Royals second-best prospect, giving up a relief pitcher when your team is already stocked with them is not a killer.
As for the other pieces, John Lamb was once a top-20 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2011 season. After struggling mightily in 2012 and 2013 in the minors, he rebounded last year with a 3.97 ERA in 26 starts for their Triple-A team, average 8.5 strikeouts per nine while walking 4.4. This year he's been even better. Still just 24, Lamb has an ERA of 2.67 in 17 starts for Triple-A once again, with an improved strikeout rate of 9.2 K/9 and a lower walk rate of 2.8 BB/9.
And finally, the 22-year-old Reed has a 2.53 ERA in 18 games (15 starts) between High-A and Double-A ball this year. According to MLB.com, Reed was the team's 26th-best prospect.
All in all, this is not a deal that cripples the Royals' future, which was my main concern over trading for a player like Cueto. While the Reds get a few decent prospects, the give for Kansas City was manageable. And after all, this is a team that clearly has World Series aspirations.
Royals typically not a win-now deal-making team, but their window is NOW, with Hosmer, Moustakas, Lo Cain climbing the arbitration ladder.â€” Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 26, 2015
Kansas City got Cueto at a manageable price, and now have a true ace to lead their staff into October.
Just like I said they should!