Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Look Back: The Johnny Cueto Trade

The Reds recognized the inevitable. They simply couldn't afford Johnny Cueto. The best pitcher of modern vintage developed by the organization. One of the best international signings ever by the organization and, given his minimal signing bonus, one of its best values.

Still, it was time to move on. The Reds traded him to the Royals in a deal that was a clear, clear win for the Reds (and one that worked out just fine for the Royals, too!).

Personally, I don't understand why Reds fans aren't doing cartwheels in the streets over this deal. Instead, we get more hand-wringing over Walt's performance. For me, if this deal wasn't a home run, it was at least a stand-up triple.

Evaluating the Trade

In order to evaluate the trade, you have to first identify what they gave up. Sure, fans have the emotional attachment to Cueto, but from a baseball operations perspective that's wholly irrelevant. What they gave up, from a baseball operations perspective, was 2+ months of on-field production and a compensatory draft pick when Johnny ultimately and inevitably departed after the season.

To simplify it even further, they basically traded a compensatory pick, because the 2+ months of starts from Johnny Cueto had no value to the Reds. In fact, due to the combination of a collective bargaining agreement that actively incentivizes losing (higher draft picks, higher spending caps) and the organization's position on the win-curve (somewhere on the "noncompetitive" spectrum), you could easily argue that Cueto's remaining starts had negative value to the Reds.

Simply put, Johnny increased the chances of winning the games he started and winning was no longer in the organization's best interests. For the Reds, the marginal value of each additional win was minimal to negative.

So, all the Reds realistically had to do for a trade to make sense to generate more value than a compensatory draft pick.

Instead of settling for a compensatory draft pick, the Reds cashed in Johnny Cueto in a big way. They traded half-a-season of service time of Johnny Cueto for potentially 18+ seasons of control over three southpaws: Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed.

If we revisit the point about needing to sync-up the productive years of their assets, then this trade makes a great deal of sense under either a quick or total rebuild. If the Reds decided to keep Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce, then these guys should be productive soon enough. If they decide to move Frazier and Bruce, then these guys are young enough and controlled long enough to still be relevant to the rebuild. This deal works.

John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan have already pitched in the majors. Cody Reed, who's pitching in double-A, isn't far away. These are pitchers who could/should arrive while Frazier/Bruce/Votto are still at the peaks of their careers.

John Lamb

I have been familiar with John Lamb for quite some time, because he's been around for quite some time, but, in light of the ups and downs of his career, it had been a while since I had contemplated him. So, my first look at him after the trade was basically starting completely fresh.

Interestingly, his age and career volatility had moved him past "pure prospect" status, so there wasn't much about him out there in the prospect sphere, which is fine because I already tend to limit what information I consider because I want to form my own opinions. In this case, I really had a bare minimum of information going in, not even information about his repertoire.

So, I started by watching a handful of Lamb's minor league starts this season. Interestingly enough, my initial impressions were actually later reinforced by his MLB performance.

When I started watching his minor leagues starts, I had to figure out his arsenal. What exactly did he throw? It became readily apparent that he had a wide variety of pitches. In fact, I counted what I thought were five different pitches:

1. 4-Seam Fastball -- His fastball velocity isn't plus, but he sits comfortable 91/92/93 and commands it well. He does an especially good job of throwing it on the inner half/corner of the plate to right-handed hitters.
2. Cutter/2-seamer -- He also throws an 89 mph cutter/2-seamer that moves down-and-in to righties.
3. Slider -- He also throws a 73/74/75 mph slider that is relatively forgettable, to the extent that it might be a slower version of his cutter or a harder version of his curveball.
4. Slow Curveball -- He throws a big, slooooowwww curveball that I kinda love. It sits in the 68/69 range and it feels like it will either be a very good weapon or a total novelty pitch.
5. Change-up -- His change-up is inconsistent, but when he throws it well it's a dead fish change-up. It sits 72/73 and it can sink and fade. I'm optimistic about this pitch.

That's what I saw in his minor league starts. Overall, I was pretty impressed, but I also formed the following general impressions:

  • The fastball was less than I expected. One of the few things I had heard about him at the time of the trade was that his fastball was in the mid-90s, but it's clearly a step below that. 
  • He operates in several different velocity tiers, including a rare pitch that could be an MLB weapon against MLB in the upper 60s. 
  • His fastball command seems strong and he's particularly comfortable working inside to righties. 
  • His breaking pitches were somewhat muddled. There wasn't a clear distinction between his Cutter/2-seamer and his slider, as the velocity was inconsistent and it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. It's tough to tell whether the curveball was a gimmick/show-me pitch or a legitimate weapon. His breaking pitches almost seemed muddled to such an extent that it was confusing to Lamb himself.    

Overall, it's a nice combination of pitches, but also one that suffers from insufficient differentiation. He needs to tighten up, and clearly define, the breaking pitches. When watching him, especially his fastball command to inside corner against righties and his ability to break his cutter down-and-in to righties, I wondered if he would suffer from a reverse platoon-split. Watching him struggle to differentiate between his slider and cutter and his difficulties in sequencing the curveball only reinforced my concern about his work to lefthanded hitters.

So, I wasn't overly surprised when he did, in fact, struggle against lefties and perform well against righties (yes, yes, small-sample-size caveats apply) at the big league level:

vs L - .342/.449/.707
vs R - .279/.337/.432

As for mechanics, Lamb is actually pretty sound. I don't see any real red flags that would make him a heightened injury risk, and yet he's already undergone TJ surgery. Personally, I have a general rule that I would not target TJ-survivor pitchers. Not on the free agent market. Not in the draft. Not in trade.

I'm of a mind that serious arm injury is the "downstream effect of an upstream cause." Tommy John surgery cures the effect, but what was the underlying cause? If that hasn't been addressed, then it seems likely another arm injury is lurking over the horizon. Ideally, the cause was something like overwork as a young pitcher, which is a one-off, non-recurring problem. However, if the upstream cause is something like a mechanical issue, then that needs to be addressed to avoid another downstream-effect.

All that said, there are exceptions to every rule and the wisdom of acquiring those survivors depends primarily on acquisition cost. It's cost that drives risk. Given that Lamb (1) makes the minimum salary and (2) represents just one piece of a three-player return, there's minimal risk to his acquisition. So, I'm on-board here, as getting multiple assets in return diversifies that risk, I just wouldn't make a habit of it.

Still, Lamb is a tall, big league ready southpaw with clean mechanics, solid stuff, and good command. That's a combination that should play at the big league level. He seems like a reasonable bet to be at least a back of the rotation pitcher and his strikeout rate makes him a decent gamble to be something more than that. Still, I'd like to see him clean up his breaking pitches, probably by dumping the slider (it's very difficult to throw both a slider and a cutter, as they tend to blend together and water down each) and refining the curveball, so he has a better understanding of how to sequence his pitches and attack hitters. Refining his repertoire will only help him develop and implement a plan of attack. Now it feels like there's some uncertainty surrounding those breaking pitches and that might explain his heightened hit rate.

Brandon Finnegan

Finnegan is the middle child of the southpaw trio. That holds true in terms of age and in terms of projection.

Lamb is the oldest by roughly three years, while Finnegan is 1 full day older than Reed. In terms of projection, Finnegan doesn't have John Lamb's floor or Cody Reed's ceiling. Lamb needs some refinement, but he's ready to hold down a spot in the big league rotation. Reed is arguably the farthest away, but he has the biggest upside.

Finnegan was drafted with the 17th overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Royals. He became the first pitcher to pitch in the College World Series and the MLB World Series in the same season. Not a bad year.

The problem with Finnegan is that the Royals have been bouncing him back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, the majors and the minors. That may have suited the Royals short-term needs, but it did no favors for Finnegan's development. At this point, it's difficult to know whether Finnegan is stretched out enough to hold down a rotation job right out of spring training.

Unlike Lamb, who is tall, low effort, and smooth, Finnegan is short, herky-jerky, and (relatively) high effort. Finnegan also has a big arm swing, so he's a bit long in the back of his delivery.

Finnegan's repertoire is clearly defined. He works with a 3-pitch mix, a fastball (PitchFX labels it a sinker), change-up, and slider. The fastball/sinker sits 92/93 with real arm side run. The changeup clocks in at 84/85 and also has some arm-side run and sink to it. His slider sits 82/83 with good bite to it.

Overall, he throws three pitches, all of them in a 10-mph range. Does he hit work in enough velocity tiers? Maybe. Does he have enough variety to keep hitters off-balance? Maybe.

Unlike Lamb, who needs to pare down and refine his offerings, Finnegan may need to broaden and diversify his offerings. Finnegan's repertoire will play at the big league level, but I don't see a ton of electricity in what he throws.

The changeup looks like his best pitch with fade and sink. The fastball has some real arm-side run to it, but isn't overly explosive. The slider has good potential, but I wish it had a bit more power behind it. If he's going to be more than a middle-to-backend of the rotation starter, he'll have to improve on his offerings. Adding more velocity to the fastball, more power to the slider, or learning how to cut the fastball so that he can shape it in either direction would raise his ceiling. Of course, that's easier said than done.

Cody Reed

Cody Reed has the widest range of possible career outcomes. That makes him the biggest risk, but also potentially the biggest reward. If this deal is going to be a massive win for the Reds, then it's probably because Reed pays off in a big way.

My first impression of Cody Reed was just how tall he looks on the mound. He's 6-5 with broad shoulders and looks every inch of it on the rubber. My second impression of Reed was that he has a very quick arm and ball really explodes out of his hand. If he doesn't make as a starter, then it's easy to imagine him as a Zach Britton, a lefty who somewhat slings the ball and gets it on the hitter before they expect it. But, right now he's looking every bit the part of a starting pitcher.

Reed works with a 3-pitch mix: a fastball that sits 92-94 and touches 96 with some sink, a slider, and a change-up. He has shown flashes with the slider and change, but right now he can dominate with the fastball. When he's on the mound and rolling, it really feels like he's pitching downhill.

That electricity that I didn't see in Finnegan? Reed has it in spades. He's pure electricity and his upside is exciting.

He throws from a low three-quarter arm slot that will scare some pundits, as they don't think a lower arm slot can work against opposite side hitters. Reed isn't having much problems with hitters of either handedness right now.

Reed needs to continue working on the change and slider, so he's got some development left to do, but the upside is there. Reed is the answer to those critics who felt the return on this trade was more quantity than quality, more floor than ceiling.

If things break right, he could be a very good starting pitcher for the Reds. If not, then maybe he's the second coming of Zach Britton. Right now, I'm betting on the rotation for Reed. He could be special.

Final Thoughts

I know many in Reds nation aren't enamored with Walt Jocketty. I have a hard time figuring out why, as his track record in trades is one area where he's really strong and I'd argue that the return on the Cueto trade is just the latest example.

The return on this trade offers a strong blend of high probability, high ceiling, and close proximity assets. It's a serious haul of talent for 2+ months of a pitcher they could no longer use or afford.

Acquiring three players diversifies the risk and gives the Reds multiple avenues to both winning the trade and generating value from it.

To me, this trade is a clear winner for the Reds, restocking a farm system that was short on impact and depth. I also doubt the Royals have any complaints about the trade, so maybe it's the rare trade that pans out for both sides. We shall see. For now, it's high marks for Walt and a brighter future for the organization.

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