Opinion

Royals eager to welcome Johnny Cueto as they push toward another playoff run

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) headed to the dugout after retiring the Rockies in the seventh inning of Saturday’s baseball game in Denver. Cincinnati won 5-2.
Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) headed to the dugout after retiring the Rockies in the seventh inning of Saturday’s baseball game in Denver. Cincinnati won 5-2. AP

In the middle of the third inning Sunday, a roar resounded through Kauffman Stadium. The players inside the Royals dugout craned their necks toward the center-field scoreboard, trained by instinct to search for the source of random applause and braced by rumors buzzing through social media before the game.

The scoreboard relayed the news: Johnny Cueto was coming to Kansas City. The consummation of the trade with Cincinnati inspired jubilation among his new teammates.

“It’s a good time to be a Kansas City Royal,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said Monday.

Center fielder Lorenzo Cain added, “When you can add a pitcher of that caliber to your team, it definitely brightens everybody’s mood.”

As the Royals opened a three-game series with the Indians, the team prepared for the arrival of their newfound ace. Cueto, 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA, will join the club on Tuesday and make his debut as a Royal on Friday in Toronto.

The team offered Cueto an extra day of rest to accommodate for his travel. Cueto will inherit his No. 47 jersey after reliever Franklin Morales agreed to give up the number and switch to No. 45.

Manager Ned Yost has not decided which pitcher Cueto will replace in the rotation. Both Chris Young (8-6, 3.32 ERA) and Jeremy Guthrie (7-6, 5.35 ERA) will pitch this week against Cleveland. The Royals will remove one or the other from the group for next week’s series against Detroit. The team will not make a roster move to add Cueto until Tuesday, with the potential choice being veteran Joe Blanton.

In Cueto — who was acquired for left-handed pitching prospects Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed — Kansas City secured the one piece missing from its roster. The Royals expect Cueto to fortify their starting rotation, which entered Monday’s game ranked 21st in baseball with a 4.26 ERA, while allowing the bullpen to rest for October.

And Cueto’s role in October is obvious — Hosmer mentioned how Cueto could replicate the heroic efforts of San Francisco bulldog Madison Bumgarner, who essentially won the World Series for the Giants last year with his left arm.

“I’ll tell you what, man,” Royals pitcher Danny Duffy said. “It’s a steal. It’s a steal.”

The trade places the Royals in a unique position. They hold the best record in the American League and own a commanding lead in their division. The sabermetric projection systems consider the Royals a lock to win the first Central Division crown in franchise history. Las Vegas has booked them as the favorites to hoist the World Series trophy.

Yet, several Royals spoke Monday about the need to avoid complacency. They witnessed how Oakland self-immolated last summer after acquiring pitchers Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija before the trade deadline. The Athletics squandered their lead in the American League West, went 22-33 in the final two months and lost to Kansas City in the Wild Card Game.

In turn, the Royals refused to paint Cueto as a savior. Pitching coach Dave Eiland admitted his excitement about the acquisition, but also pointed to the resurgence of Duffy and Yordano Ventura’s dominant performance on Sunday. Kansas City has already accessed great heights without Cueto.

“He makes us better,” Eiland said. “Any time you get a player of that talent, it makes you better. But we still have 65 games left. We’ve still got to go out there and play them.”

The lone source of unease among Royals players was the loss of Finnegan, who last season became the first player ever to pitch in the College World Series and the major-league World Series in the same season. He secured seven extra-inning outs in that history-altering one-game playoff with Oakland.

Finnegan told friends the trade deflated him. He had bonded with veterans such as Hosmer and outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Finnegan will report to Cincinnati’s Class AAA club and work as a starter, as he did at TCU. Some within the Royals organization felt he was more likely to end up a reliever, as he has been in his brief big-league career.

“It stinks to see Finny go,” Hosmer said. “At the same time, you realize it’s part of the business. Johnny is what we need, and what we need to put at the top of this rotation.”

That is why Kansas City targeted Cueto all season long. They were one of several teams with interest in Cueto, who will be a free agent this winter and is expected to reap a nine-figure contract from a team besides the Royals. The club was happy to strike a deal with Cincinnati, if exasperated by the process.

On Saturday night, Fox Sports reported negotiations broke down between the two teams after a Kansas City player failed to pass a medical review by the Reds. During a radio interview on 810 WHB on Monday, Royals general manager Dayton Moore called the report “totally false.” The story agitated the front office, which was infuriated by speculation over which Royals prospect was injured.

A day later, Fox Sports reported the two sides reached an agreement before the Royals took the field against Houston. Even a day later, Kansas City officials insisted the deal had not yet been completed. Yost did not learn about the deal until moments before the announcement appeared on the scoreboard. He heard when advance scouting coordinator Bill Duplissea rang him in the dugout.

“Where in the hell did you hear this from?” Yost asked Duplissea, who informed him that the team had announced it to the public. A few minutes later, the dugout exploded with cheers, joining in with the fans at Kauffman Stadium. The value of Cueto, both now and in October, is no secret.

“That’s the reason we lost the World Series last, because of a performance by Bumgarner,” Hosmer said. “Johnny’s the type of guy that can put on a performance like that.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

The Kansas City Star's Vahe Gregorian and Tod Palmer discuss the trade for Cincinnati Red's ace Johnny Cueto, and win by Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura over the Houston Astros. Video by John SLEEZER/jsleezer@kcstar.com

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