The first domino fell on the trade market for starting pitchers on Thursday afternoon, when Houston acquired Oakland southpaw Scott Kazmir. The cost was right-handed pitching prospect Daniel Mengden and catching prospect Jacob Nottingham, a package that establishes the going rate for two-month rentals and clarifies what it may cost for the Royals to acquire Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto.
The Royals have been active in their pursuit of an additional starting pitcher, according to people familiar with the situation, and the season-ending ulnar collateral ligament tear of Jason Vargas only heightened their need for upgrades. Cueto, a 29-year-old right-hander who will become a free agent after this season, appears to be the Royals’ top target.
The team has not limited its search to Cueto, as it also has been linked to his teammate, Mike Leake, in addition to White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija, Texas righty Yovani Gallardo and the Miami duo of Dan Haren and Mat Latos. The Royals are not believed to have interest in adding players with larger financial commitments attached to them, like Phillies ace Cole Hamels or former Royal James Shields, who could be moved as the Padres rebuild.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore confirmed his team’s activity, but declined to provide details. As a rule, the Royals do not publicly discuss potential acquisitions before they are consummated.
“We’re doing our best to improve our team with the things that make sense,” Moore said on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the team announced Vargas’ injury. “We’ll see how that goes. There’s a lot of things still up in the air.”
Cueto may possess the highest upside of the bunch, with a 2.79 ERA in 2015, but he has raised concerns about his health this season. In the past week, Reds scouts have kept a close eye on the Royals affiliates at Class AAA Omaha and Class AA Northwest Arkansas, according to people familiar with the situation.
The price for Kazmir suggests the Royals may not have to part with top prospect Raul A. Mondesi, the 19-year-old, five-tool infielder, in order to acquire Cueto. But the Royals are not alone in their chase for him, as teams like the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Yankees could all join that market.
Cueto has been one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball this decade. He owns a 2.53 ERA from 2011 to 2015.
But he missed a start in May because of elbow stiffness. His agent told the Cincinnati Enquirer that an MRI revealed no structural damage, but still worries about his health persisted. Cueto gave up five runs to the Marlins on July 12. He issued six walks in his first start of the second half.
The concern does not appear to be enough to dissuade a team like the Royals from acquiring Cueto. But it could reduce Cincinnati’s asking price. While the Royals are wary of losing Mondesi, they may be more willing to move a player such as rookie left-hander Brandon Finnegan, who has bounced between the majors and the minors this season. Other clubs could also seek pitching prospects like Miguel Almonte, Sean Manaea and Kyle Zimmer.