So much of the Royals’ build from rubble to the best record in the American League has been about relationships. Ned Yost’s move is patience. The coaching staff’s play is loyalty. The support staff is about hugs. The players, mostly, respond with an uncommon exuberance and energy. The result has changed Kansas City.
It’s a rarer thing than it may seem: a group of millionaires with different backgrounds and priorities genuinely enjoying their time together.
But on a team largely formed through loving relationships, the one with Johnny Cueto is purely platonic. It is handshakes, not hugs.
Yost, the Royals manager, at times has been like a father and a brother and a friend to his players. His announcement that Yordano Ventura would be his team’s Game 1 starter in the Division Series on Thursday night was also an announcement that Johnny Cueto is not.
This was supposed to be Cueto’s role, you remember. He was The Ace The Royals Always Needed when they traded three left-handed pitching prospects in July. His track record backs that up, even if his time with the Royals so far has been more like one part fantastic, two parts awful, and three parts solid.
But, most of all, the ace is no longer the ace because this is a business relationship.
For both sides.
The job on Thursday could have been Cueto’s. The Royals won’t say that publicly, which is fine, but it’s true. Cueto didn’t want to, and the team didn’t push. He has never pitched on short rest, and declined the opportunity. He was not up for it.
Ventura told the team he’d be willing to go on short rest, and he’s been pitching better lately anyway, so Cueto is taking a symbolic demotion. Since 2012, Cueto was the Reds’ opening day starter each season and their Game 1 starter for each playoff series.
The Royals are presenting this as Ventura’s achievement rather than Cueto’s miss, but there are elements of both. Ventura shrunk when given the opening day start this year, and even if he’s grown since, the logic of giving him the first playoff start would be a stretch if not for Cueto’s relative struggles and unwillingness to potentially pitch on short rest.
This is one more look at a laid-back, deferential nature first spotted in Kansas City when it took five awful starts and a closed-door meeting with Yost, pitching coach Dave Eiland, catcher Sal Perez and international scouting director Rene Francisco for Cueto to mention he’d like Perez to set up with a lower target.
“This is my take on it, OK?” Eiland says. “He comes over here, knows why we got him, what we’re trying to do: ‘You’re our No. 1 guy.’ Then he has a bad start in Boston, and it’s, ‘Oh, they didn’t get me to have bad games.’ So he puts pressure on himself. Now your confidence takes a hit, one turns to two, two to three, and eventually we just had to get everybody together.”
Perez made the adjustment, and Cueto’s results immediately improved — 25 innings with a 3.24 ERA in his last four starts, compared to 26 1/3 innings with a 9.57 ERA in his previous five.
The Royals have presented the lower-target thing as The Fix, but when reached this week, former catcher Corky Miller said it wasn’t stressed when he played with Cueto in Cincinnati.
“Not necessarily,” Miller said. “He always liked a low target, but it wasn’t something we ever deviated from. I guess it was something we never had to stress. We just knew him.”
The Royals want to believe everything is fixed now, but underneath those results lay some concerning trends. In each of the last four starts with better results, Cueto has given up at least nine baserunners. The opposition is hitting .296 with a .733 OPS in those games.
In real terms, the good results don’t matter any more than the bad ones. Cueto made it clear to the team, for instance, that he would use his last start to get his mechanics right and otherwise focus on the granular details of pitching in a way that de-prioritized statistics — “exercise the arm,” in baseball speak. Basically, it was treated like the last spring training game.
For the Royals’ purposes, it does not matter which games Cueto pitches. Starting Game 2 of the Division Series means he would likely be the guy for Game 5, and on regular rest. The Royals will need up to six more starts from Cueto, and assuming Ventura handles himself well, it’s probably better for the team’s future that he thinks of himself as the man again.
After all, they control Ventura for six more seasons. Cueto is almost certainly gone as a free agent this winter.
That means Cueto is pitching for his next contract. The demand for starting pitchers so far exceeds the supply that he will be wealthy no matter what, but there is a premium for playoff performance and a strong postseason could wipe away any concern over the spotty last two months.
There is a term some in the game use when teams sign their own players to long-term contract extensions. They call it marriage. In that way, the Royals married Ventura.
The relationship with Cueto is a business transaction. He is their associate, and the Royals are his platform. The Royals will not pay him next year, and Cueto would not push himself on short rest this year. Each side is acting in its own best interests.
Those self-interests involve and depend on the other side, but only to a point.