Only three members of the Royals’ starting lineup have ever faced Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto during the regular season, and Lorenzo Cain experienced this in the midst of his whirlwind rookie season with Milwaukee in 2010. Yet five years later, Cain still recalls how Cueto commanded both sides of the plate and fired a seemingly ceaseless array of pitches darting in different directions.
“Me personally, getting a chance to face him, I think he’s definitely an ace,” Cain said.
He could also become an object of affection for Royals fans the next two months. On Tuesday, Cueto will duel Yordano Ventura at Kauffman Stadium. Cueto can enter free-agency this winter. If the Reds continue to limp below .500, his availability will become a hot topic as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. It is unclear if Cincinnati will trade Cueto, a 29-year-old right-hander. It is obvious that other clubs will try to acquire him.
The Royals could join the pack of teams phoning Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty to express interest. The organization fields a farm system capable of sparking at least a discussion, rival executives say. To those executives, Cueto represents the one asset missing on the Royals’ roster: A genuine centerpiece for their rotation.
As a rule, general manager Dayton Moore dislikes public dissection of potential transactions. He does not monger rumors, and any discussion of a pursuit of Cueto, who is 3-3 with a 2.93 ERA, would be premature. But Moore indicated the Royals would search for upgrades as the summer continues.
“We’re always trying to make our team better,” Moore told The Star in a telephone interview on Monday. “We like our current group a great deal. We trust our current group a great deal. That being said, nobody can predict what’s going to happen tomorrow. So we just continue to look for how to shore up every weakness we have.”
Midway through May, despite their first-place perch in the American League Central, the starting pitchers remain a source of anxiety. Even after a seven-inning gem from Edinson Volquez on Sunday, the Royals’ starters entered Monday ranked 23rd in baseball with a 4.46 ERA, 22nd with a 4.34 fielding-independent ERA and 28th with a 1.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Royals have overcome this flaw with a boisterous offense, near-impregnable defense and a bullpen that borders on cruel. But few clubs can withstand shaky starting pitching and still reach October.
The composition of the group is also in flux. After straining a flexor muscle, Jason Vargas can return from the disabled list this week. It is unclear whom he will replace. Like manager Ned Yost, Moore declined to guarantee Chris Young, who has allowed one earned run in three starts, will remain in the rotation.
“There’s no need to make any advance decisions about what your rotation is going to look like,” Moore said. “I just know what it’s going to be for the next time through. It’s very fragile. That’s the way it is.”
The sore thumb of the bunch is Danny Duffy, who has experienced a miserable three-start stretch, yielding 14 runs in 9 2/3 innings. The Royals made Duffy their No. 2 starter before the season began. Their hopes for him remain high. But Yost indicated Duffy’s rotation spot could be in jeopardy if he continues to flounder.
Moore maintained optimism about Duffy, one of the first players he drafted in his tenure as general manager. Pitching coach Dave Eiland diagnosed Duffy as overthrowing during this stretch, which causes his command to disappear. Moore suggested this occurrence may slow as the season continues.
“Historically, power pitchers, especially young power pitchers, you’ll see more consistency with fastball command as they get eight to 12 starts under their belt,” Moore said. “Their body starts to tire a bit, I guess, if you will. They get more in rhythm. More in sync.”
If both Duffy and Ventura, who is 2-3 with a 5.36 ERA, recapture the form they presented for most of 2014, the Royals can tout a pair of hard-throwing youngsters with the arsenal of aces. Yet neither has met expectations this season. The coming months will determine if the team requires outside fortification to their rotation.
If they do, there are few better options than Cueto. The Phillies could finally move lefty Cole Hamels, but he is owed $76.5 million from 2016 to 2018. Oakland could dangle Scott Kazmir, another southpaw, but scouts see him as a less rousing addition than Cueto.
Based on their interactions in spring training, Alex Gordon compared Cueto to Edinson Volquez, his former Reds teammate. He hurls cutters and two-seamers that slice and sink to both sides of the plate.
“A lot of action with his fastball,” Gordon said. “Good change-up, too. A lot of movement.”
Unlike Gordon, Cain has actually faced Cueto during the season. He can vouch for his status as one of the game’s best.
“I feel like he has every pitch you can think of,” Cain said. “He’s definitely been solid for the last few years.”
Royals starters in 2015
*as a starter only
Johnny Cueto in 2015