No contender needs Johnny Cueto more than Kansas City Royals

At some point in the next 10 days, the Cincinnati Reds are going to trade Johnny Cueto, and some contender is going to get perhaps the best pitcher available for the stretch run. Nearly every team that’s in need of a starting pitcher has been linked to Cueto at some point, and the Reds won’t have any shortage of suitors vying for his services. But where does he fit best, and who should bid the most to secure him as their ace for the rest of the season?

First off, let’s just acknowledge that basically every contender in baseball could use Cueto; no one has four starters at his level, so he’d slide right into the front of every team’s playoff rotation, and would start the first game of a playoff series for most of them. He’d represent a larger upgrade for some teams, while some other teams that could use pitching might be better off going in another direction than paying the price for Cueto. 

At the top of that list, I’d probably put the Los Angeles Dodgers. They clearly need a starting pitcher or three, especially with Brett Anderson leaving his start early on Tuesday night, and really, his history of health problems made it unlikely that the team should count on him giving it significant innings in October even before that injury. Given their resources and their position at the top of the NL West, it seems very likely that the Dodgers will make a move to upgrade their rotation, but I don’t know that Cueto is the best option for them. 

Part of the appeal of landing a guy at Cueto’s level is that you’re adding a pitcher who can match up with other teams’€™ aces; you pay a premium to get Cueto because he’s going to have a larger impact in the postseason than he will in the regular season. Except the Dodgers already have the best pitcher in baseball and the guy pitching like the best pitcher in baseball right now; on the Dodgers, Cueto might actually be the No. 3 starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. 

There’s nothing wrong with having a great No. 3 starter, but that means Cueto would make only one start in the first round of the postseason. Paying the price to obtain an ace with the potential to use him for only one game in the first round probably isn’t worth it, and the Dodgers might be better off getting two lesser starters to fill the last two spots in their playoff rotation rather than going for one more elite starter to team with the two they already have. 

Likewise, I’d probably suggest that teams with a quality No. 1 starter who are potentially headed for a wild-card berth also should avoid paying the tax to land an ace. As we saw a year ago, the Oakland A’s paid a very high price to land Jeff Samardzija, but he didn’t even participate in the Wild Card Game because the A’€™s also traded for Jon Lester. If you’re likely to end up in a single-elimination game, it’s probably best that all of your primary deadline upgrades can actually be on the field in that game. Having one of your best players watch from the bench isn’t an ideal strategy.

Among the teams that fit this already-have-a-wild-card-starter mold and should probably pass on Cueto at the price the Reds will demand: the Astros (Dallas Keuchel), Tigers (David Price), Pirates (Gerrit Cole), Rays (Chris Archer), Cubs (Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta), Mets (Jacob deGrom) and Giants (Madison Bumgarner). Cueto would help all of them, but the odds of ending up in a winner-take-all game with either Cueto or their current All-Star starter sitting on the bench makes paying the steep price to acquire a frontline pitcher less appealing. 

So with those teams less motivated to pay for a No. 1 starter, and the Cardinals and Nationals already feeling pretty good about their playoff rotations, that leaves just five contenders looking for starting pitching — all of them in the American League: the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East, the Royals and Twins in the AL Central, and the Angels in the AL West. 

Of those five, the Twins are probably the least likely to land a guy like Cueto, given that they’re an overachieving young team that still has its eye on the future. Giving up significant pieces for a rental the Twins won’t re-sign probably doesn’t make sense. The Angels could certainly use Cueto, but with a barren farm system, they probably don’t have the pieces to keep up once the bidding gets going. So let’s cut that final five down to three. 

The Blue Jays certainly have a glaring need, with their pitching staff letting down a great offense, but GM Alex Anthopoulos has already stated that short-term rentals are "the last aisle I’d want to shop in." And with the Yankees opening up a decent lead in the East, the Blue Jays’€™ preference for guys who could help them in 2016 as well might keep them from going too aggressively for Cueto. 

Of course, that brings us to those Yankees, who are starting to look like a very likely playoff team after a two-year absence from the postseason. And while Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka (when he’s been healthy) have pitched well, both are still high-risk pitchers. Acquiring Cueto would allow the team to not have to count on having both available for the entirety of the postseason; that way, either one going down to injury wouldn’t sink the team’s playoff chances. 

But GM Brian Cashman is already downplaying the idea of a major move, arguing that the team already has pitching depth it likes. Cashman might be blowing smoke, but after working pretty hard to restore the team’s farm system, I actually believe him when he talks about not wanting to give up top prospects like Aaron Judge or Luis Severino for a short-term upgrade. 

So that leaves just one: the Kansas City Royals. The defending American League champs — and the team with the league’s best record at the moment — are the most obvious fit for Cueto. While every other contender can make a reasonable case for why the price for Cueto might be too high for its specific situation, the Royals have no such objections. 

They’re the most likely AL division winner, meaning that they don’t have to worry about paying a high price for Cueto and then getting bounced in the Wild Card Game. And as it stands right now, the Royals don’t have anyone you want to hand the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series. Their de facto ace, Yordano Ventura, was optioned to the minors Tuesday after putting up a 5.19 ERA in his first 76 1/3 innings this season. Ventura’s probably going to be fine — his core numbers still suggest that he’s throwing mostly the same stuff as usual, and likely just needs to find his command again — but he’s not a guy you necessarily want to count on to carry your rotation right now. 

Additionally, the team also saw Jason Vargas come off the disabled list Tuesday, face six batters and leave with what was diagnosed as a torn UCL on Wednesday. With Vargas out and Ventura a question mark after being recalled Wednesday, the team’s current rotation consists of Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Danny Duffy, Jeremy Guthrie and Ventura/Joe Blanton. The Royals are counting on pitchers who just don’t really belong in starting roles in a playoff series.

No contender in baseball would get a larger upgrade from adding Cueto than the Royals because most contenders aren’t handing the baseball to Blanton or Guthrie on a regular basis. So that alone is a good reason to make a deal. But I’d also suggest that the Royals, who spent years building their farm system to try and get to this point, shouldn’t let this opportunity pass by because it might be the best shot they get with this group. 

Star left fielder Alex Gordon has the ability to become a free agent at the end of this season, and while he’s made some noise about picking up his player option, it’s hard to see him playing for $12.5 million next year when he’d likely command a $100 million long-term deal on the open market. So they have to at least consider the possibility that they might lose Gordon next year, and considering he’s probably the best left fielder in the American League, that would be a significant blow. 

Likewise, the Royals probably aren’t going to have their entire bullpen back again next year. Greg Holland is going to blow past $10 million in his final trip through arbitration, and with the team also needing to give arbitration raises to Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas — plus maybe replace Gordon and get some better starting pitchers — the organization might finally end up breaking up its dominant group of relievers. Toss in some regression from guys like Cain and Wade Davis, who are simply playing at remarkably high levels that are difficult to sustain over the long term, and there are some legitimate concerns surrounding next year’s roster. Especially if Vargas’ elbow injury puts him on the shelf for next year as well. 

So while the Royals have a terrific young core, it’s probably not wise to assume that they’re going to cruise to division titles for the foreseeable future. This might very well be the best chance the Royals ever have to win the World Series. 

Especially if they can add a legitimate ace like Cueto to the mix. Put a No. 1 starter on this team — and maybe ask the Reds to kick in Mike Leake while they’re at it — and they solidify themselves as the team to beat in the American League. Last year’s surprising playoff run reinvigorated a fan base that had been dormant for years, but now the Royals have a real chance to give those fans a championship parade. If there’s any team in baseball that should agree to pay a premium to land Cueto at the deadline, it’s the Kansas City Royals.