If the Cincinnati Reds were holding out hope of Johnny Cueto giving them a hometown discount on an extension, it sounds like they can forget about it.

And if they have any sense, that will be their cue to find a trade for Cueto before the winter is up.

The latest on Cueto comes from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. He spoke to the star right-hander’s agent, Bryce Dixon, and found that not only is there an Opening Day deadline for Cueto and the Reds to agree to terms on an extension beyond his walk year in 2015, but that the price in mind is a lot higher than the $105 million deal Cincinnati gave to Homer Bailey last year.

“[Jon] Lester is a better comp,” said Dixon, adding: “[Max] Scherzer‘s the closest comp.”

We know Lester signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Courtesy of Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com, we know Scherzer is seeking a $200 million contract in free agency.

That’s where Cueto‘s team’s asking price is: between $155 million and $200 million, preferably closer to the latter.

That’s a big demand, to be sure. But it’s not unreasonable.

Where Lester and Scherzer are both past 30, Cueto hasn’t hit 29 yet. Also, any version of WAR based on runs allowed can show that he’s arguably the best pitcher of the three as far as recent history is concerned.

If we use FanGraphs‘ RA-9 WAR, for example:

The knock on Cueto is that he hasn’t been as healthy as Lester and Scherzer in recent years. While they’ve both made around 130 starts since 2011, Cueto‘s only made 102 thanks to shoulder injuries.

But when Cueto has been healthy, his WAR domination reflects just how good he’s been.

He posted a 2.25 ERA and led the National League in innings pitched and strikeouts in 2014, finishing second to Clayton Kershaw in the Cy Young voting. He has a 2.48 ERA over the last four seasons. That he’s done all this while pitching at an extreme hitters’ ballpark half the time makes it doubly impressive.

Point being: The Reds are going to be very hard-pressed to talk Cueto down. So they can either empty out their pockets to extend him, head into 2015 and hope for the best or bite the bullet and trade him.

One of those ideas simply makes a lot more sense than the others.

The idea of the Reds meeting Cueto‘s asking price wouldn’t be scary if they were free of long-term financial commitments. If that was the case, a deal worth $25-30 million per year could work.

The Reds, however, aren’t free of long-term financial commitments.

Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, they have at least $50 million in commitments every year between now and 2019. That’s thanks mainly to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey, who will combine for nearly $40 million in salary in 2016 and over $40 million in the years after.

If the Reds were to extend Cueto at his price, they’d be looking at having three players account for somewhere between $60-70 million in salary every season for the foreseeable future. For a small-market team that, according to FanGraphs, only has a $30 million-per-year local TV deal, that’s bonkers.

Now, the wild card in the Reds’ future is that they’ll soon be getting a new local TV deal, as theirs is set to expire after 2016. Knowing what we know about baseball TV deals, it’s safe to assume the Reds’ local TV revenue will soon be getting a boost.

But if the Cleveland Indians can only go from a TV deal worth $30 million per year to one worth $40 million per year, the Reds might not do much better. And even if their annual local TV revenue were to, say, triple to $90 million, they’d still have three over-30 players eating up the bulk of that. 

So we’re best off scrapping the idea of the Reds extending Cueto at his price. That would be financially foolish at worst and financially risky at best. 

This leads us to the idea of the Reds just hanging on to Cueto and going for it in 2015. That’s the one they seem hell-bent on clinging to, for reasons that are fairly obvious. After Cueto was one of very few bright spots in a 76-86 season, why not retain his awesome pitching and hope they have better luck elsewhere in 2015?

It’s not a bad hope. It’s just that the writing on the wall says it’s a doomed one.

As things stand now, here’s how FanGraphs projects the NL Central:

Yup. There are the Reds. Projected to be in last place.

Honestly, that strikes me as a bit harsh. But there’s also little question the Reds are loaded with question marks. The trades of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon hurt their rotation depth, and Mike Petriello did a good job of summing up the team’s offensive question marks in an ESPN Insider piece:

It didn’t help that Billy Hamilton was the second-worst hitter in baseball in the second half or that Votto was injured or that [Jay] Bruce completely fell apart, and it’s fair to expect that at least one of those three players is going to give a lot more in 2015. But to expect production from all three, and for [Todd] Frazier and [Devin] Mesoraco to sustain their nice years, and for [Brandon] Phillips to stem the steady tide of aging, well, it’s just not realistic, to say nothing of the left field hole and the fact that [Zack] Cozart will never be an acceptable big league hitter.

Relatively speaking, other teams in the NL Central are better off. There are well-balanced teams in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, and the Cubs’ additions of Lester, Jason Hammel and Miguel Montero give them a roster that now has veteran talent to go with a surplus of young talent.

The Reds are looking at a catch-22. If they trade Cueto, they’ll be punting on 2015. But if they don’t make big roster changes before Opening Day, they’re likely punting on 2015 even if they keep him.

So realistically, Cincinnati’s choice boils down to what it can get for Cueto. If he’s retained for 2015, that’ll be a draft pick after he rejects a qualifying offer and signs elsewhere next winter. If he’s traded now, it will mean relief from his $10 million salary and a package of young talent.

Payroll relief and a package of young talent are more appealing than a draft pick even without context, but they become even more appealing with it.

If the Oakland A’s could turn Jeff Samardzija’s walk year into four pieces of controllable young talent, you can imagine what the Reds could get for Cueto. Perhaps an MLB-ready super-prospect and additional talent on the side, which would mean big things for the Reds’ life after Cueto.

As told by ESPN.com’s Buster Olney, the book on Reds owner Bob Castellini is that he’s hyper-competitive with a “win-now personality.” That’s not the kind of owner who’s liable to trade a really good player while he’s still really good, so I won’t take it for granted that Cueto will be traded this winter.

But he should be. It was a good idea for the Reds even before Cueto‘s camp named its extension price, and that just made it an even better idea.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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