The general feel surrounding the Cincinnati Reds as their 2015 Spring Training gets underway in earnest is that this could be the last chance for their present core to win as a unit. Too many impending free agents, too many years on their stars’ bodies and too little revenue make it easy to predict that the 2016 Reds will look a lot different than the version that’s shaping up in Goodyear, AZ, right now. The truth is, though, that rotation ace Johnny Cueto, and his contract demands, could set the Reds’ rebuilding gears into motion by Opening Day.
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Cueto, of course, entered the off-season as one of four Reds starters with a year left until free agency, and he has consistently told the Reds that, while he would love to stay in Cincinnati, he will hit the open market next winter if he does not have a new pact in place by the end of Spring Training.
How much will it take to sign Cueto? Max Scherzer’s mega deal is on Cueto’s mind, but as he told the media in Goodyear yesterday, he’s not going to limit himself:
"If I have to ask for something, I’m going to ask for $300 million. If you’re asking, you can ask for any number."
Sure, it was a joke, at least sort of. The reality is that Max Scherzer’s deal with the Washington Nationals will be at the front of Cueto’s bargaining suite throughout the process of signing, either with the Reds or another team. If Cueto rolls into 2015 looking like Cy Young again, $25-30 over seven years (or more) won’t be that farfetched considering that he is nearly two years younger than Scherzer.
With those kinds of numbers on the table and a six-week deadline, it’s almost unthinkable that the Reds will be able to re-sign Cueto, at least before next winter. By then, he’ll be entering his age-30 season, and if he’s fallen into the Reds’ price range, that probably also means that he stumbled during the 2015 season, either through a performance regression or injury problems. A seven-year commitment, dicey even now, would border on outrageous for the Reds at that point.
If no nothing dramatic develops to bring the two sides together before Opening Day, then, Cueto will be the lame duck in the Reds’ rotation. If the Reds are winning, it won’t matter, but if they stumble again, the temptation to trade their ace early for maximum return will be high. Opposing general managers will be burning a hole through Reds’ GM Walt Jocketty’s cell phone if they aren’t already.
A big-market team on the fringes of contention by, say, Memorial Day, could put together a strong package of young talent for Cueto that could help set up Cincinnati up for a short rebuild rather than a more drawn-out process like the Houston Astros are just coming out of.
Of course, the roadblock to getting maximum value in return for Cueto will be the stubbornness of Jocketty and team owner Bob Castellini. With the All-Star Game coming to the Riverfront this summer, neither man will want to admit that the Reds are out of contention, so the tendency will be to hold on for dear life. Where Johnny Cueto and his soon-to-be-huge contract, letting go is the better alternative.