Jon Heyman dropped his latest, robust set of NL Notes, and there’s a ton in there about the Chicago Cubs that you will want to check out.
Of particular interest in this here rumor post, however, is this line: “The Cubs reached out to Johnny Cueto two years ago before deciding to save a little money and sign old friend John Lackey. So Cueto might be one to keep an eye on for them.”
It’s certainly possible that Heyman is slipping that into his article apropos of nothing in particular, merely as a reflection of Cueto’s availability, the Cubs’ pitching needs, and a possible previous connection. It’s also possible – and is usually the case in these kinds of seemingly randomly attached players and teams – that he’s heard a little something out there, not quite firm enough to put specifics on it, but enough to start drawing new connections.
Setting that aside for the moment … does Cueto make sense as a trade target for the Cubs?
Well, although I’m not sure he’s the Giants pitcher I’d first see the Cubs going after, there is a surface level fit. Cueto has been a front-half starter for most of his career, is under team control beyond 2017, and has generally been healthy in his career.
But there are significant issues before going ahead with a trade.
For one thing, although Cueto has been a front-half starter for “most” of his career, the 31-year-old has been much less effective this year, posting a 4.42 ERA over 93.2 innings. Like many pitchers in baseball this year, the primary problem has been the long ball, which he’s been giving up at nearly twice the rate (1.63 per 9 innings) as he had before this season. His strikeout rate has held steady, but his typically minuscule walk rate is up a bit, his groundball rate is down, his fly ball and line drive rates are up, his hard contact rate is way up, his soft contact rate is way down, and his fastball velocity is down. There are some serious concerns here.
And that ties into the other problem with a Cueto trade: his contract.
Cueto is signed through 2021 for $21 million per year after this year ($23 million), plus a $22 million team option ($5 million buyout) for 2022. It’s a significant contract that is totally worth it if Cueto is the guy he’s been before 2017, but an albatross if he’s the guy he’s been this year. And the problem? Cueto has an opt out after this season.
In other words, if you trade for him and he turns it around, he probably opts out and all you got was a good rental. If you trade for him and he continues to struggle, he doesn’t opt out, and you very well may have give up actual value to acquire a terrible contract.
Unless Cueto “fixes” something in the coming weeks, and suddenly looks reliably and predictably like the Johnny Cueto of the past several years, I just can’t see how a trade is going to come together with the Cubs or any other team.
For what it’s worth, Heyman reports separately that it is still the current expectation that Cueto will opt out after this season.