Let’s begin this post with two statements …
Statement No. 1: The Kansas City Royals improved themselves greatly, acquiring Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday.
Statement No. 2: Kansas City is just as likely to win the World Series with Cueto or without him.
Can both statements be true?
Let’s look at statement one first. Without question the Royals starting staff improved. The term “ace” doesn’t mean much, even if it’s used all the time. Cueto indeed gives Kansas City an “ace” or a No. 1 starter, filling the void left by James Shields. Cueto, recent elbow concerns aside, is in the midst of another strong season with a 2.62 ERA and 146 ERA+. Both those numbers would lead the current Royals rotation, which just lost veteran Jason Vargas to Tommy John surgery.
Continuing down the statistical road, the Royals starting pitcher ERA is 21st in baseball at 4.26. More concerning is their starters are 29th in innings pitched at 537. In 13 of his 18 starts, Cueto pitched seven or more innings this year. Assuming he stays healthy, that’s a big gain for Kansas City.
Meanwhile, as we saw last October the Royals bullpen remains fantastic with a league-best 2.12 ERA, albeit with the third-most innings logged at 327. Ned Yost leaned on Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland last October. The pen is even deeper in 2015 with Franklin Morales and Ryan Madson logging 40+ excellent innings each.
So let’s finally get to statement No. 2 from above.
To answer my own question: probably.
The Royals, without an “ace” own the best record in the American League at 59-38. Last October they went to the World Series — an came pretty damn close to winning — with the same formula, adequate starters, awesome bullpen, great defense and timely hitting. Sure his nickname was “Big Game James” but Shields went through 2014 with an ERA+ of 124 — nearly identical Edison Volquez’s 127 ERA+ as of this morning in 2015.
Shields lasted five innings in the 2014 AL Wild Card game against the Athletics, allowing four runs. The Royals swept the Orioles in the ALCS last year without a starter logging six innings pitched in a start. Of course, if Cueto can throw seven strong innings and turn it over to Davis and Holland for the final six outs, that’s a nice combination for Yost to have.
There are some other factors to consider why the Royals added Cueto. Veteran, soft-tossing righty Chris Young is starting to regress to the mean. Danny Duffy remains inconsistent. Yordano Ventura’s ERA is 5.63 in July, which led him to a brief demotion to Triple A until the Vargas injury. When you look at it that way, yes, the Royals indeed needed a reliable starter and adding Cueto — even at the cost of Brandon Finnegan and others — was probably worth it, even if he leaves as a free agent.
As of Monday, Kansas is 7.5 games ahead of Minnesota with a 97 percent chance to win the Division. Adding Cueto and his innings should help keep the pen a little bit fresher come October.
The non-waiver trade deadline is Friday. Something to consider for any pitcher who gets traded between now and then — or even in August — is that the team acquiring him might only get one postseason start. The Wild Card games are one-offs and the Division Series can be over in the blink of an eye.
And as we saw last year with a pair of Wild Card teams reaching the World Series, the playoffs in baseball could become more and more of a crapshoot. All a team has to do is get in and anything can happen in October, Exhibit A being the 2014 Royals who swept through the Division Series and ALCS.
In short, the Royals are certainly better today with Cueto on their roster than the day before, but it (or any acquisition made over the next week by any contender) hardly guarantees anything once October rolls around.
[Photo via USA Today Sports Images]