Reds facing decisions as Cueto's contract year approaches

Cincy poised to exercise bargain club option, making ace attractive trade chip

Reds facing decisions as Cueto's contract year approaches

CINCINNATI -- Especially when compared to a couple of his esteemed contempories, Reds ace Johnny Cueto will be a relatively major bargain while pitching next season.

Cueto has a $10 million club option for 2015 that's a lock to be exercised after he completed the four-year, $27 million contract that was signed to avoid arbitration on January 26, 2011. Like most bargains, the price won't remain low permanently, as the 28-year-old Cueto can become a first-time free agent about one year from now.

The good news for Cincinnati is that Cueto seems like he's very interested in remaining with the Reds long term.

"Yes. I feel good here," said Cueto through interpreter Tomas Vera after he earned his 20th win of the season on Sept. 28. "I like it here. I like the fans. I like the stadium, even though the stadium is small, I like this stadium. I pitch good here. I want to stay here, yes."

The bad news for Cincinnati is that it's rarely as simple as that.

Not only is Cueto a year away from free agency, but so are three others in the Reds' rotation: Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon. The Reds' payroll is already stretched while carrying big long term contracts like those that belong to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and most recently, starting pitcher Homer Bailey, who signed a six-year, $105 million deal in February as he headed into his final contract year.

And Cueto is easily the best trade chip that the Reds and general manager Walt Jocketty have if they decide they need to part with pitching to make needed offensive upgrades.

Cueto is coming off of his best season and one of the best in Reds history after he went 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA over a National League-leading 34 starts and 243 2/3 innings. The team's first 20-game winner since 1988, he was also tied for the league lead with 242 strikeouts.

In 194 starts over seven seasons, Cueto is 85-57 with a 3.27 ERA. His 2.73 ERA over the last five seasons is the second best in the Major Leagues behind the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (2.26) among pitchers with at least 130 starts.

Remember, Cueto could be a big bargain next season for other clubs, too, at $10 million. In January, Kershaw signed a seven-year, $215 million contract to avoid arbitration. His deal will pay him $30 million for next season alone. In March 2013, another 20-game winner, Adam Wainwright, signed an extension with the Cardinals that gave him $97.5 million over five years. Wainwright will earn $19.5 million per season through 2018.

The Reds don't have a storied history of developing homegrown pitching. Their last successful homegrown pitcher was Tom Browning, and before that, Mario Soto.

Manager Bryan Price was hopeful, but realistic, about the Reds' chances of retaining Cueto and the others from the rotation.

"We've got a lot of very good homegrown players that are either working their way into arbitration or towards free agency, and as much as I think we'd love to be able to keep every single guy and pay them what they deserve, it's impossible to do here," Price said. "And then it feels like you're trying to pick your favorite guy, and it's just -- as good as these guys are -- they're all at different levels. Some of them may be able to demand six- or six-plus-year, top-level salary, and others are more maybe in what you consider the affordable range. And it doesn't look good when you're not trying to sign your best players, and sometimes it's hard to keep them all -- maybe impossible to keep them all.

"That being said, every effort will be made. But sometimes the players have to cooperate, too. And that's hard to ask of them, to be in the prime of their career and try to make it workable for both sides."

When it comes to Cueto, the Reds are at the proverbial fork in the road.

Do they try to give him a big extension this winter? Should they trade him and his bargain option this winter to help retool the offense? Do they do nothing for now and trade him during the season if they fall out of contention? Or should they let him pitch for the Reds all of next season -- especially if they're contending -- and roll the dice that if they can't re-sign him as a free agent, they would at least get the Draft-pick compensation?

While wanting to stay, Cueto isn't going to concern himself with how it happens. He's focused on pitching for the Reds -- the team he came up with -- in 2015.

"That's not my decision. That's the GM's decision -- what he does or what they do," Cueto said. "All I have to do is continue working, come back to Spring Training and do my job and continue doing what I've been doing. And let them make decisions about it."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.