Royals vice president and assistant general manager Rene Francisco laughed off a mea culpa Sunday at Kauffman Stadium when he was asked about the Royals’ newest starting pitcher, Johnny Cueto.
“Honestly, I can say I made a mistake when I was with the Dodgers,” said Francisco, who was the director of international scouting with Los Angeles during 2002-04, “because the scouts reminded me that I saw (Cueto), but I don’t remember him and I didn’t sign him.”
Now in his ninth season in Kansas City’s front office, Francisco helped the Royals avoid repeating his mistake, shipping three minor-league left-handed pitchers — Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed — to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Cueto and cash considerations.
With an eye toward repeating — or bettering — last season’s World Series run, Cueto, 29, provides a much-needed boost for the Royals’ rotation, which ranks next-to-last in the major leagues in innings pitched this season.
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“I actually saw him this winter,” Francisco said. “He’s a competitor, he’s a worker and he’s going to help us get deep into games. … He takes the ball every fifth day and he’s a guy that just challenges hitters, changes speeds, pitches quickly and doesn’t waste too many pitches. He attacks the zone, and he’s not afraid.”
Cueto, a 5-foot-11 right-hander from the Dominican Republic, was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA in 19 starts this season with Cincinnati.
“He was a top priority for us,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said by phone Sunday after a 5-1 win against the Houston Astros. “We felt he fit us and he was a pitcher who matched up with anybody. He’s a top-of-the-rotation starter.”
The Reds signed Cueto — who is in the final year of a five-year, $36.2 million deal — as an international free agent when he was 18 years old in 2004. Leaving the only professional organization he’s ever known is bittersweet.
“I know it’s a good trade, but I’m very sad,” Cueto, who plans to join the Royals on Tuesday in Cleveland, told reporters in Denver through a translator. “I’m very thankful to my teammates, to my fans and my coaching staff. I’m very sad, it’s a very emotional time for me, but I understand that it’s part of the game and I’m just excited about my next step.”
Cueto, who logged eight scoreless innings Saturday night against the Rockies, has posted a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last five seasons, going 60-31 with a 2.51 ERA in 121 games since 2011, the second-lowest ERA during that span behind Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw.
“He’s a good fit for this park,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’s got dominating stuff. (Saturday) night his fastball was at 97 miles per hour, good breaking ball, good change-up, tremendous competitor. He’s just a top-of-the-rotation type of starter. It’s a big boost to get somebody like that. … It just makes us a better team for now and going into the playoffs and October.”
Yost will try to keep Cueto on his regular rest, which puts him in line to start Thursday, but Yost plans to discuss it with pitching coach Dave Eiland on the flight to Cleveland before making a final decision.
Reports circulated Saturday night that a deal to acquire Cueto for prospects fell through when one of the prospects wasn’t cleared medically.
Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said he wasn’t sure how those reports surfaced, but he indicated that he was in discussions with the Royals and two other teams late into the night. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that the Reds decided to pull the trigger and accept the Royals’ offer.
With the Royals, Cueto will be reunited with Volquez, a fellow Dominican native who was his teammate and part-time roommate with the Reds during 2008-11.
“Edinson has been talking about him for the last month,” Francisco said, “because they know each other. Some of the Latin players know each other and some of our staff members know him, so he’s going to fit right in.”
Cueto was runner-up in National League Cy Young voting last season and finished 12th in the MVP race after going 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA and 242 strikeouts in 243 2/3 innings.
He has a 92-63 career record with a 3.21 ERA, which is the sixth-lowest among active pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings.
During his eight-year career, Cueto is 14-6 with a 2.68 ERA against American League teams, including an 8-2 mark with a 2.98 ERA against the Royals’ AL Central foes.
Moore indicated that it’s not the right time to discuss the possibility of a long-term deal with Cueto, but he didn’t rule anything out.
“We’re just focused on what we need to do today and moving forward for the rest of the season,” Moore said. “Those discussions take place at a much later time. We acquired Johnny Cueto to help us compete and win a division and hopefully get back to the playoffs and win a World Series.”
Moore also said the Royals probably aren’t looking to make another major move before Friday’s trade deadline, but left the door open for adding another bat.
“We’re going to continue to look for ways to improve our team, but we like our group a great deal and we believe in this group of players,” Moore said. “I don’t feel like we have to go out and add anything at this point in time, but there’s a lot of creative people out there in the game that propose ideas and deals that perhaps work for both organizations, and we’ll be very open-minded as we move forward here in the next four or five days.”
With the moves, the Royals have 39 players on the 40-man roster, but a move will be required to make room for Cueto on the 25-man roster once he reports to the team.
Finnegan, 22, who was rated as the No. 55 overall prospect before the season by Baseball America, was 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in 14 games with the Royals this season.
He also spent chunks of the season with Class AAA Omaha and Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
Finnegan, a first-round pick last summer, quickly became a fan favorite in 2014. He rocketed from the draft to the majors, becoming the first player to ever play in the College World Series and the big-league World Series in the same season.
The team intended to develop him as a starter, but Finnegan shined during a limited role as a reliever.
His stock dipped this spring when he showed up out of shape, a point Yost acknowledged a few months after spring training ended.
Finnegan struggled to repeat his delivery, flunked a series of tests in Cactus League games and received a demotion to the minors. His development as a starter was interrupted when the Royals called him up on multiple occasions as an emergency reliever.
Finnegan’s value may never be higher, according to some rival evaluators. There was a split within the Royals organization, as some team officials felt Finnegan may not be able to start in the majors.
The Reds view Finnegan as a starter, Jocketty said.
Lamb, 25, a fifth-round pick by the Royals in 2008, appeared to be on a fast-track to the majors before ligament-replacement surgery in 2011 derailed his ascent.
He won the Paul Splittorff Award as the Royals organization’s pitcher of the year in 2010, but struggled in 2012 and 2013 after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Lamb regained his form last season, going 8-10 with a 3.97 ERA in 27 appearances at Class AAA Omaha, and was 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA for the Storm Chasers this season.
Reed, 22, was a second-round pick by the Royals in 2013. He was 10-17 with a 4.21 ERA in 52 career minor-league games, but went 7-7 with a 2.53 ERA in 18 games at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas this season.
Finnegan and Lamb were assigned to the Reds’ Class AAA team in Louisville, while Reed was assigned to Class AA Pensacola.