Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto created quite a stir last spring. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004 for just $3,500, Cueto tore through the minors in short order before making a lasting first impression in the majors, punching out 18 batters in his first two starts. The 5-10, 185 pounder alternated between dominant and flammable the rest of the year, showcasing plenty of talent while also making apparent his need for a more refined approach.
After signing for .001 percent of what 2004 first-round pick Homer Bailey received, Cueto got his professional career started for the rookie-level GCL Reds in 2005. In 43 innings, Cueto posted solid peripherals (7.95 K/9, 1.67 BB/9), but his ERA was an inflated 5.02 thanks to an unusually high hit rate (10.26/9). Impressed with his work, the Reds had Cueto make one start for Sarasota of the High-A Florida State League, where he would strike out six and walk two in six frames. The Dominican was still largely unknown at this point, as the 2006 Baseball America Prospect Handbook did not rank Cueto as one of Cincinnati’s top 30 prospects and did not include him in the team’s depth chart.
In 2006, Cueto would go a long way toward making himself known to the scouting community, dominating between stops at Low-A Dayton (Midwest League) and Sarasota. In 76.1 frames at Dayton, Cueto would whiff an impressive 9.67 batters per nine innings, while allowing just 1.77 BB/9. His Nintendo-level 5.47 K/BB ratio translated to a 2.65 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA). Feeling that Low-A hitters were no match for his low-90’s heat and power slider, Cincinnati promoted Cueto to Sarasota for the second half of the season. His strikeout rate declined somewhat (8.9 K/9) and he walked more batters (3.36 BB/9), but those are still dominant numbers for a 20 year-old in advanced A-Ball, and translated to a solid 3.90 FIP ERA in 61.2 IP. Upon reaching Sarasota, Cueto began generating far more flyballs than he previously had in his career. His GB% was 54% at Dayton, but fell to 39% at Sarasota. Cueto’s flyball-centric approach would continue in the coming years, but we’ll discuss that in more depth later on.
Following the season, BA took note of Cueto’s performance in a big way, as he surged from unranked to rating as the 4th-best prospect in the Reds system. While cautioning that “Cueto’s size doesn’t lend itself to durability”, BA praised his “free and easy three-quarters delivery” that pumped fastballs reaching 96 MPH.
Cueto’s 2007 campaign would make his breakout 2006 season look downright tame by comparison, as he sprinted though three different leagues and terrorized batters at every stop. Cueto opened the season back at Sarasota, where he posted rates of 8.27 K/9 and 2.41 BB/9. His 3.43 K/BB ratio bested his 2.65 showing at High-A in 2006, and translated to a tidy 2.86 FIP ERA in 78.1 IP. Upon being bumped up to AA Chattanooga of the Southern League, Cueto would go bonkers. In 61 frames, he posted a 2.89 FIP ERA and punched out a stunning 11.36 batters per nine innings, issuing just 1.62 BB/9. Cueto’s home run rate climbed from an extremely low 0.34/9 at Sarasota to a more reasonable 0.89/9 at AA, but his 7.00 K/BB ratio made him look like the Southern League’s version of Pedro Martinez. Promoted yet again, Cueto would throw 22 innings for AAA Louisville of the International League. In his first and only taste of the IL, Cueto posted a 21/2 K/BB ratio and a 3.02 FIP ERA.
Now firmly entrenched on prospect lists everywhere, Cueto once again ranked as Cincinnati’s 4th-best farm product following the 2007 season. BA also rated him as the 34th-best overall prospect in the minors, commending Cueto for pitching “like a 10-year major league veteran, not a fresh-faced 21 year-old.” Noting his work with former Reds star Mario Soto, BA commented that Cueto’s changeup had come a long way under the tutelage of the three-time all-star. In addition, Cueto also featured a “93-94 MPH fastball that touches 96” and a “tight 83-88 MPH slider.”
Following his eye-opening, three-affiliate tour-de-force, Cueto impressed Cincinnati brass enough to win himself a rotation spot in the big leagues this past season. The 22 year-old showed the ability to miss plenty of bats, striking out 8.17 hitters per nine frames. However, his control came and went (3.52 BB/9), and he had serious trouble with the long ball, surrendering 1.5 HR/9. Cueto’s K rate was the 14th-best among all major league starters, but his home run rate was the 5th-worst in the game. Only Brandon Backe, teammate Aaron Harang, Paul Byrd and Jeff Suppan were burned by the big fly more often than Cueto.
Cueto has established himself as an extreme flyball pitcher, having generated groundballs just 38.6% of the time in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, his home ball ballpark severely punishes such tendencies. Courtesy of the 2009 Bill James Handbook, we find that Great American Ballpark had a HR Park factor of 128 between 2006 and 2008. GABP increased home run production 28% over the past three years. Suffice it to say, that does not bode well for a guy who puts the ball in the air so often.
Johnny Cueto remains an extremely talented young pitcher. His 93 MPH fastball and mid-80’s power slider can be nearly impossible to hit at times, as evidenced by his minuscule 76.9 Contact% (9th-best in baseball, sandwiched between Cole Hamels and Johan Santana). However, he may want to utilize his changeup more often in 2009, as he threw his slider over 32% of the time (the 5th-highest rate in the big leagues) while using the change just 6.7%. When he threw it, Cueto’s change was a nasty looking pitch, with horizontal movement that was identical to his fastball and a whopping 7 inches of vertical drop compared to his heater.
Cueto has the tools necessary to establish himself as one of the best starters in the big leagues. However, fantasy owners might need to experience some of his growing pains first, as he learns to use his full repertoire and limit the long-ball damage.