“Hey, let’s go watch the Dragons play. This new guy the Reds signed from the Dominican Republic is pitching. He’s supposed to be really good.”
That’s what my dad said to me about nine summers ago in reference to Johnny Cueto. I thought at the time he was being overly optimistic, but we still went. I can’t exactly remember the game except that it took place at Fifth Third Field and that the low-A Reds affiliated Dayton Dragons won. And I know it left both me and my dad impressed with the 20-year-old. And Cueto left us filled with hope for the future. That was a hard thing for a prospect to do for Cincinnati Reds fans in the mid-2000s. Seeing names like Stephen Smitherman admirably fill the shoes of former Dayton Dragons like Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn only to flame out after reaching the majors left many of us understandably fatigued with and skeptical of the Reds’ farm system. But that wouldn’t happen with Johnny Cueto.
He arrived in the majors in 2008 to great fanfare along with Edinson Volquez, who was acquired in the Josh Hamilton deal and would become an All-Star later that season. Cueto’s career with the Reds began with a seven-inning, ten-strikeout gem against the Arizona Diamondbacks on a wet, cloudy day in April, in which he carried a perfect game into the fifth inning before Justin Upton hit a home run to break it. It ended the same day his personal hero, Pedro Martinez entered the Hall of Fame.
It made a lot of sense that Cueto and Volquez became friends. They were both young, hard-throwing righties from the D.R. who wore their hair the same way with the Reds (at first short and tight and later with dreads extending to their necklines). In spring trainings past, it wasn’t uncommon to see them competing to see who could light up the radar gun faster while warming up next to each other on the practice fields. In 2008, it was no coincidence that they inspired a revitalization of the fan base as part of a core of young talent along with two talented hitting prospects (and Dragons alumni): Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Each of these players would go on to play key roles in helping to lead the 2010 Reds to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1995.
In 2011, overcoming an injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season and despite underwhelming performances by the Reds and his close friend Volquez, Cueto added a deceptive twist to his delivery in the vein of Luis Tiant to fix a mechanical flaw and almost won the NL ERA title. He only finished a few innings short of qualifying and would have placed second nonetheless, but things were looking bright before 2012. He was healthy and even though Volquez had been traded just before the new year, the Reds were much improved considering whom they had got in return. In 2012, Cueto and Mat Latos led a Reds starting staff to a division title with no starter missing his turn in the rotation for the entire season except for when Cueto shockingly wasn’t able to start both games of a doubleheader. But bad luck struck quickly and it struck with a vengeance. Cueto threw two strikes to lead off the NLDS against the eventual World Champion Giants and then ill-advisedly held on to the next pitch as Angel Pagan called a late time out. He pulled his oblique while trying to stop his delivery and went on to miss the rest of the playoffs and eventually much of the beginning of 2013 after striking out Pagan, throwing two strikes to Marco Scutaro, and leaving the game- a cruel plot twist to a season that looked like it would have a completely different ending.
He had again contended for the ERA title and not missed a single start all season, validating his status as a star ace (despite not being selected for the All-Star Game by a totally not petty and condescending Tony La Russa). And it all came crashing down at the worst possible time due to bad luck, regression to the mean, snakebite, a freak injury- whatever you’d prefer to call it. The Reds went on to defiantly win the first two games of the series on the road, but they ran out of gas in the last three at home without the benefit of a then-unnecessary second day off (a ridiculous oddity owing to MLB’s baffling one-year only 2-3 road-home format for the Division Series, made to optimize the first postseason with a Wild Card Game).
2012 ended with no one knowing if Cueto (or the Reds, for that matter) would ever be the same again. And for much of 2013, he wasn’t (at least, not by his standards). He once again had to miss the start of the season and battled through recurring and remaining injuries, ending with only having thrown 60 2/3 innings total, but the Reds still managed to make it to the playoffs as the second Wild Card team. Hope against all odds was held out that Johnny Cueto would make a triumphant return to the stage in the wild card playoff game against the Pirates to begin the postseason, but it was not to be as the Reds lost in Pittsburgh 6-2 inside an electric PNC Park that very obviously got inside the heads of Cueto and the rest of the team. Even though one wonders how different that year truly could have been had Cueto’s injury at the end of 2012 not been so serious, it’s not worth the hypothetical because that would require making assumptions about the other injury-affected seasons of 2012 and 2011.
By 2014, however, Cueto was back, finishing second in the Cy Young voting to a phenomenal Clayton Kershaw. But the Reds weren’t. A number of injuries (most significantly to Joey Votto) combined with front office ineffectiveness (or indifference, maybe) and the regular managerial ineptitude (despite a change in that department’s personnel) doomed the Reds immediately following the All-Star break and, despite Cueto’s successes (including his first-career All-Star selection), talk of a rebuild soon overtook any talk of World Series contention continuing through the offseason.
This year, the Reds still expected to contend (against all logic and reason) and were hoping to see Johnny Cueto (inevitably, as most knew) leave for a larger paycheck, only as a World Champion at the end of the season. This was, after all, the year that Cincinnati was hosting the All-Star festivities. A storybook ending was clearly due for this team.
But real life isn’t a storybook. And the Reds were too addicted to thinking it was. They had too much hope. Too much irrational hope. Hope that they desperately wanted the fans to have, too.
Except for the first couple of weeks of the season, the team never resembled a contending one in 2015 and, even though Cueto enjoyed and sustained a sterling start, he was forced to rely on the Final Vote to be selected for an All-Star Game which he still likely wouldn’t have even been able to pitch in due to the schedule of the Reds rotation forcing him to make a start the Sunday before the break. The strategy soon turned from banking on luck to rectifying mistakes once the All-Star break ended and Cueto was the first casualty.
On July 26, the Reds made the decision to trade Johnny Cueto to the Royals for John Lamb, Cody Reed, and Brandon Finnegan. But it was the right decision. It netted the Reds three hard-throwing lefty prospects and signaled to the baseball world that they were finally ready to unload the rest of the pending free agents playing for them, as well as the other expensive veterans rumored to be on the hook. In addition, it sent Johnny Cueto to a team in the Royals that has extremely realistic World Series aspirations, as well as one of his best friends in Edinson Volquez playing a major role as a starter (not having to deal with the consequences of the qualifying offer during free agency should be nice, too).
To many Reds fans, Johnny Cueto represented hope. Just as all 5’11” of Pedro Martinez did the same for Cueto who some scouts said was also too short to pitch, he represented hope for competitiveness in a fan base that had been starved of it. But he wasn’t trying to do that. Just like Pedro probably wasn’t trying to be a role model, Johnny wasn’t trying to be the savior. He was trying to be the best pitcher on the face of the earth.
At his peak now, what Johnny Cueto does can only be described as art. And at his best with the Reds, his career could only be described as a miracle. He was the best homegrown Reds pitcher in 30 years after all. And being that while also being his size with the odds plenty of scout gave him was pretty extraordinary (it also doesn’t hurt to take into account the amount of injuries he’s had to overcome). Hopefully, Reds fans won’t have to wait another 30 years for that kind of hope, though. Hopefully, the three now-former Royals farmhands can come and take Cueto’s place. But that’s all fans can do is hope. Really, it doesn’t matter that much to the players or the team. They might like it (or hate it), but it doesn’t really have an affect on how they play.
Hope really is one of the most important things for fans, though. And though it may not have been that way for him, Johnny Cueto was still one of the first to inspire the hopes of Reds fans and carry through on them in a long time, especially on the mound. That’s as good as a miracle. And though it might not be as special to him as the stats he put up or the wins he contributed to, it will or at least it should be at the front of the memories of Reds fans as Cueto returns with the Royals this week.