Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Cueto returns to GABP


Johnny Cueto returns to Cincinnati for a bout with his successor

Johnny Cueto was more than just a starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. Johnny Beisbol dominated the sport for a team that did not always provide him run support despite playing in the hitters’ dream of Great American Ball Park (GABP). But the park factors rarely bothered Cueto and he gifted the Reds with five consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA.

After signing with the Reds as an amateur free agent more than a decade ago in 2004, Cueto’s journey to Cincinnati began the following year in Rookie Ball. The 5-foot-11 undersized righty quietly became a legitimate prospect. Striking out nearly a batter per inning over his first few minor league seasons, Baseball America then listed him as 34th best prospect entering the 2008 season. He made his debut with the Reds later that season, again striking out nearly a batter per inning, but struggled with his control and command of the strike zone suffering to a 4.81 ERA, leading the league in hit batters and walking 68 in 174 innings.

Cueto was not much better in 2009 again hitting 14 batters, watching his strikeout rate plummet to less than seven per nine innings, while sporting nearly identical H/9 and BB/9 ratios with a 4.41 ERA. But strides were made in 2010 and again in 2011 when he posted a 2.31 ERA in in 24 starts.

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In 2012 Cueto established himself as a legitimate ace when he led the league in games started, lowered his walk rate to just two per nine innings, improved his strikeout rate and won 19 games with a 2.78 ERA. The Reds won 97 games, finished first in the NL Central and Cueto finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting behind R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez. Unfortunately in 2013, Cueto battled lat injuries limiting him to just 60 2/3 innings, but had a 2.82 ERA, five wins and his strikeout rate continued to climb.

2014 was the year Cueto asserted himself as one of the premier arms in all of baseball. He again led the league in games started, was a 20-game winner, led the National League with 242 strikeouts and a Major League best 6.2 hits allowed per nine innings. He made his first — and only appearance so far — All-Star game, finished runner-up in the Cy Young voting to Kershaw and was one of three National League pitchers to receive MVP votes. But the Reds suffered to a 76-86 record and appeared primed for a rebuild in the near future.

That rebuild began last season when Cueto — in the midst of what looked to be another Cy Young Award contending season — was eventually traded out of Cincinnati to the contending Royals where he ultimately won a title and gave Reds fans mixed emotions pitching a complete game two-hitter in the World Series. His tenure with the Reds was watered down due to poor team success, but across a decade with the organization Cueto proved to be one of the most effective starting pitchers to ever grace a Reds uniform.

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He wasn’t always perfect and wasn’t always healthy, but when he took the mound, it was usually the one day that week where you expected the Reds to grab a win. Coincidentally tonight, after signing as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants, Cueto returns to GABP to face the Reds for the first time since being traded … against Brandon Finnegan — the primary piece that the Reds received from the Royals in the four-player trade last July.

Finnegan has held his own through five starts this season, but Cueto is an established ace. It’ll be fun to see who gets the best of who later this evening, and while Cueto may have been a fan-favorite we wouldn’t mind a Joey Votto dinger to welcome him back to Cincinnati!