Royals Come Up Aces With Cueto

If there was a better fit for Johnny Cueto than the Kansas City Royals, I can’t imagine what it is. The Reds dealt their ace to Kansas City yesterday for two minor-league pitchers and talented young reliever Brandon Finnegan. The acquisition of Cueto makes the Royals the clear favorite to win the American League pennant, regardless of what other trades happen the next few days and their odds at winning the World Series went up markedly.

My statement that Cueto makes Kansas City the AL favorite may seem strange, given that according to Las Vegas they already were the favorite to get back to the World Series. They had, after all, won last year’s AL flag and had the league’s best record this season. What more did you need?

I needed to see a true ace at the top of the rotation, or at least a legitimate horse like they had last year with James Shields, since departed to San Diego. Someone you could rely on for seven innings or so every fifth day and could reasonably match up with the aces other teams have in the playoffs.

Depth wins in the regular season and Kansas City has a lot of that, especially in the bullpen. But it’s elite players that tend to carry teams in October, where the span of a short series gives them greater impact. And the Royals’ pitching staff was not suited to win in the postseason.

Kansas City’s pitching overall has been excellent this season, as evidenced by their best-in-the-AL team ERA. But if you look at starters’ ERA, they drop to 10th. If you look at innings logged by the starting rotation, it gets worse—no rotation in the league pitches fewer innings than KC’s.

Even with Cueto, the Royals are still going to rely on their bullpen, but you can’t tax them that much during the season and even in October, you need a handful of games where a starter can go deep. While the Royals’ starters were averaging only 5.5 innings per start, Cueto was averaging 6.9. Problem solved.

The acquisition makes Kansas City, already in command in the AL Central, now highly likely to maintain their healthy 7 ½ game over the Minnesota Twins, who have overachieved just to stay that close. That means the Royals will be able to line up their rotation as they want it for the playoffs and that means Cueto on the mound for Game 1 of the ALDS at home.

Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher in baseball. He’s spent his career in the very hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and posted phenomenal numbers.

In 2012, he was 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA in 217 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s love of the great story of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

In 2014, Cueto was even better, 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 243 innings of work. He should have won the Cy Young Award if not for the media’s rush to exclude anyone not named Clayton Kershaw from the discussion.

Even Cueto’s recent “bad” year, the injury-plagued 2013, was pretty good when he was available. In eleven starts, his ERA was 2.82.

The team that came within a run of the World Series title a year ago has added the best arm in the game to their rotation. The best teams in baseball are still in the National League—the Cardinals, Dodgers and possibly the Nationals if they can kick it into gear. But the acquisition of Cueto has quickly vaulted Kansas City to the status of betting favorite to not just win the pennant, but to win the whole thing. The Royals shoved their chips onto the table and bet big. And they came up aces in this deal.