What do the Kansas City Royals owe Johnny Cueto?

Johnny Cueto is a rental for the Kansas City Royals, brought into serve as the staff ace and propel the team back to the World Series. He will be gone following the final out of the 2015 season, off to a richer team. The 29-year-old right-hander knew that when he came to Kansas City, and so did the Royals. Yes, Kansas City gave up a lot to get Cueto, but adding an ace who had pitched to a 2.62 ERA on a bad team seemed worth it.

Things went quite swimmingly for Cueto and the Royals in the beginning. He allowed just six earned runs in his first four starts with Kansas City, spanning 30.0 innings. Cueto pitched a complete game shutout on August 10 against the Detroit Tigers and followed that up with eight innings of one-run ball on August 15 against the Los Angeles Angels.

It’s been all downhill from there.

Since that dominant performance against the Angels, Cueto has been rocked repeatedly. He gave up 13 hits and six earned to the Boston Red Sox and allowed three home runs in five innings to the slumping Baltimore Orioles. After bouncing back slightly against the Tigers, Cueto’s last start may have been his worst. He allowed five runs in three innings on nine hits to the less-than-stellar Chicago White Sox. All told, in Cueto’s past four starts, he has pitched to a 9.45 ERA, allowed 37 hits in 20 innings, and lost all four times. These are the worst four consecutive starts of Cueto’s career. He had never allowed more than 21 runs in four straight starts or posted four consecutive sub-50 Game Score starts.

This is not what the Royals thought they were getting into when they brought Cueto into the fold.

Clearly, something is not right for Cueto. His ERA has soared all the way from a low-point of 2.46 to 3.24. An All-Star caliber pitcher does not see such a significant decline in performance unless there is an underlying health concern. There have been questions about Cueto’s mechanics as he has struggled, but eight-year veterans do not suddenly start flying open unless there is some sort of health concern. While it could be something as minor as inflammation, Cueto is pitching at less than peak condition and it’s showing. Royals’ manager Ned Yost has made it clear that Cueto will take his next turn in the rotation on Saturday in Baltimore. That could be a recipe for disaster, as the Orioles teed off on Cueto last time around.

What Cueto most likely needs is a break from his regular turn in the rotation, but will the Royals give it to him? Ned Yost has been non-committal regarding the subject. Already, it seems Cueto is falling out of favor in Kansas City. He skipped his own fan event yesterday before sending out a statement through his agent. If relationships are already souring in Kansas City, what do the Royals actually owe Cueto for the remainder of the year?

Yost has been in the position of holding onto a rental ace before. He rode CC Sabathia like Seabiscuit in 2008. Sabathia came over to the Milwaukee Brewers and threw seven complete games in 17 starts. Sabathia wanted the ball, pitched on short rest, and went on his merry way to collect a rich paycheck from the New York Yankees. This is likely how Yost and Cueto envisioned his time with the Royals. Getting away from a losing Cincinnati Reds team should have given Cueto the opportunity to increase his value as a free agent by pitching well in a pennant race and the playoffs. Now, he’s going to face questions about his health, performance, and makeup.

Do the Kansas City Royals owe it to Johnny Cueto to give his arm a break so that he does not risk a major injury that will hurt his chances as a free agent? Some would say yes. I would say not exactly. The only reason the Royals should give Cueto a break is to ensure that he pitches well in the playoffs. The contract that another team will give Cueto in the offseason should have no bearing on the decisions made in Kansas City. Do the Royals owe Cueto a chance to pitch in the postseason for the first time since he imploded in the 2013 Wild Card Game? No again. If Cueto is still struggling as the playoffs begin, the Royals cannot afford to trot him out there to take his lumps in critical games.

These types of situations are tricky for management. When trading for an ace, it is exceedingly rare to be saddled with a lemon after only eight starts. While the Royals gave up a lot to get Johnny Cueto, they are no longer getting a lot in return. Kansas City owes Cueto nothing beyond the end of this season, and they owe him very little the rest of this one. If Johnny Cueto is healthy, then he will continue pitching for the Royals. If not, the Royals should not skirt around the subject. Shut him down and move on before the problem becomes even bigger.

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