MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Cueto's extension could depend on state of rotation

Performance of back end, middle of order important in keeping club competitive

Cueto's extension could depend on state of rotation

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It was morning, and Johnny Cueto had been at the Reds' Player Development Complex all of about a half an hour. Somebody asked Bryan Price if Cueto's contractual situation could be a distraction.

"It hasn't been today," the skipper said with a laugh.

But Cueto's contract is the undoubted undercurrent in the Reds' 2015 campaign.

This is a club that, even after dealing away two-fifths of its rotation over the winter, still has the seeds of a contender in a dizzyingly deep National League Central Division. But Cueto's pending free agency is the not-so-subtle storyline beneath the surface. Not that a ballclub that fell well south of projections with an 86-loss effort in '14 needs another source for the ol' sense of urgency, but the possibility of Cueto hitting the trade market should things go south in the first half is all too real for the Redlegs. The only way to suffocate the swap speculation is with wins.

On Thursday, Cueto spoke with reporters for the first time this spring, and he said what you would want or even expect him to say.

"I would love to stay here," he said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "I want to stay here."

Of course, in a world in which Max Scherzer gets 210 million George Washingtons in Washington, it's awfully hard to imagine a Reds club that has already bid boldly on multiple core pieces finding a way to keep Cueto. As general manager Walt Jocketty said recently, "It's very tough in our market."

This isn't just about market size. This is about past allocations.

Joey Votto will make $14 million this year before his salary climbs to $20 million in '16. Homer Bailey will go from $10 million in '14 to $18 million in '15. There are other raises built in -- for Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco and Aroldis Chapman (through arbitration) -- and these raises all point to a payroll a few ticks north of $100 million, even if the Reds let Cueto and Mike Leake and Sean Marshall and Marlon Byrd and Manny Parra walk at year's end.

So while both sides give adequate lip service to the possibility of an extension by Opening Day, such an extension certainly seems doubtful. The Reds took a bit of a risk in keeping Cueto rather than wholeheartedly exploring his trade market the way they did with Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. But then again, it's possible for Cueto to prove to be his own insurance come July 31, when his trade value might not be significantly less than what it was in a winter packed with upper-tier options on the free-agent and trade front.

Anyway, the Reds certainly hope it doesn't come to that. They kept Cueto and parted with the others for a reason -- multiple reasons, in fact.

For one, they still rightly believe in the value of the forefront of their rotation -- Cueto, Bailey and Leake -- and they don't think the dropoff in the back end will be nearly as drastic as might be assumed externally.

Tony Cingrani, they know, has a big power arsenal that could reap big rewards if he's healthy. Last year, he was not. After mightily promising 104 2/3 innings in '13, Cingrani battled command issues and shoulder issues in '14. The former prompted a demotion to Triple-A, where the latter forced him to miss the last few months of the season.

"Good health and quality strikes," Price said of his expectation for Cingrani. "I don't know after his first start last year if he was ever able to recapture that type of electricity that he had. If he's healthy and he's throwing strikes, I think he'll be greatly successful. He has a special fastball and a special deception to his delivery."

It's a bit more difficult to assume Anthony DeSclafani, the 24-year-old right-hander acquired in the Latos trade, is a viable big league starter, only because his small-sample numbers as a reliever were much stronger in his short stint with the Marlins. He has to use this spring to prove his arsenal runs deeper than just fastball-slider and that he's ready for a rotation role.

The guy who might ultimately be the most intriguing in the Reds' back-end-of-the-rotation mix this spring is Cuban import Raisel Iglesias, a big-armed, light-bodied right-hander with swing-and-miss stuff. The Reds got an extended look at him in fall instructional league and in the Arizona Fall League, and he's already thrown a couple bullpens here in spring camp.

"He's a very talented young man, very polished from what we've seen," Price said. "It's a small sample size, never more than two innings. But it's been very good. Our feeling is he has the stuff and the command to start, but he hasn't taken on a starter's workload in some time. We feel that's where he's best-suited until he proves otherwise."

The Reds' rotation is still considered a team strength until proven otherwise. What remains to be seen is if the core of their lineup can stay healthy and produce.

Frazier and Mesoraco have become stars in their own right, but there's no denying this team needs bounce-back seasons from not one, not two but three members of the middle of its order -- Votto, Phillips and Bruce. Each figure is fascinating in his own way. As much as those of us in the pro-Joey camp will defend his OBP assets to the death, we know he's ultimately only as good as the condition of his knee. Phillips is trying to fight off injury-aided regression at a demanding position. And Bruce is coming off an unbelievably frustrating '14 in which he probably rushed back too soon from knee surgery and suffered the numerical consequences.

In moving two rotation pieces and adding a veteran outfielder in Byrd with only one guaranteed year remaining on his contract, the Reds' broadcast two seemingly contradictory goals this winter. But in today's game, the rebuilding and contending lines are blurred more than ever, and who could blame the Reds for making every effort to remain relevant the year they host the All-Star Game?

We already know the Reds have very little chance of keeping Johnny Cueto beyond October. It's the state of the back end of the rotation and the health of the heart of the order that will determine if he's still here beyond July.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.