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If Johnny Cueto has elbow issues, the Cincinnati Reds are toast

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Cueto is scheduled for an MRI on his ailing elbow on Tuesday.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a BABIP for franchise decisions, it would surely show the Cincinnati Reds were either supremely unlucky at the moment, or that they weren't making good enough contact to get many hits.

The decision to enter the 2015 season with an eye on the postseason despite having lopped off 2/5th of the team's rotation was curious, as was that same assertion despite the only notable offensive addition being 37 year old Marlon Byrd.  Then, would-be rotation cog Homer Bailey was lost for the season thanks to a torn UCL, already his second major arm injury and surgery in barely over 12 months since signing his $100 million contract extension.  The bullpen lagged horribly, the bargain-bin signings of Kevin Gregg and Jason Marquis proved to be as inept as they appeared on paper, and the should-be nail in the coffin came in the form of a degenerative hip condition for the also recently extended Devin Mesoraco, an injury that will also require surgery and end the All Star catcher's season.

When poor planning against tall odds meets bad fortune and a spate of injuries, it shouldn't take a rocket surgeon to point the Reds' ship in the direction of a rebuild.  While they've lost 9 games in a row and look collectively woeful on the field, there are still ample trade chips at GM Walt Jocketty's disposal, and with proper care and management the club could make enough moves to get things fixed in a hurry.

Unless, of course, their biggest trade chip gets injured, too.

As FoxSports.com's Jon Morosi noted this morning, the Reds will find out whether their biggest trade chip - ace starter Johnny Cueto - will be back in the rotation and hurling gems within the week, or will be facing an injury that could derail everything.

For the record, the Reds are saying all the positive things you'd expect to hear from a franchise that has backed itself into such an odd, restrictive corner.  Bryan Price is no MRI machine, though, and much like Bailey's flexor mass tendon and UCL issues came to light from little perceived evidence, the list of pitchers whose elbows have gone from zero to gone in a blink is unfortunately long and distinguished.

The Reds' insistence on maintaining relevance despite the fairly obvious writing on the wall may have cost them the ability to trade Cueto for a key piece of the inevitable rebuild, and whether it was hubris or ineptitude, it may be the move that sets the team back a year or more.  Cueto is 29, a relative steal at just $10 million in 2015, and has gone 47-24 with a 2.59 ERA, 15.2 bWAR, and a pair of Top 5 Cy Young Award finishes since 2012, and is not just a clear member of the elite class of pitchers in all of baseball, but the highest profile pitcher likely on the trade market this year.  While that kind of profile has helped propel the Reds to the post-season twice in that time, it's also the kind that means serious dollar signs, and with Cueto on the brink of free agency, it has become clear that his price tag will be too high for a Reds club that has repeatedly chosen to ink other players with their available funds.

In other words, Jocketty has an ever shrinking window to turn Cueto into tangible assets beyond 2015, and if the results of today's MRI come back cloudy - or worse - the window just slammed shut.

Yes, there's the chance that the club shrugs their shoulders, extends Cueto a Qualifying Offer at season's end, and nets a pick somewhere in the top 35 or so in the 2016 MLB Draft, but even if draft captain Chris Buckley works magic with that pick the way that he did with Todd Frazier, Michael Lorenzen, and hopefully Alex Blandino, that's the kind of compensation for Cueto that won't help the big league club for 2, 3, or even 4 years down the road.  Trading Cueto, however, is the precise way to pluck a more proven, more polished prospect from another team's system and have them as a part of the pending rebuild as early as the last half of this very season.  It'd be acquiring a stud catcher to lessen the potential gravity of Mesoraco's hip impingment, a capable starting outfielder that would allow the team to free itself from Marlon Byrd's $8 million vesting option (that is on course to vest), or an arm that can jump right into the rotation void left by Cueto and fellow future former Red Mike Leake.

Instead, the Reds may have forfeited the ability to sell their fans on staying relevant in 2015 while also punted any chance at making 2016 a year of any significance.

Cueto's MRI may show nothing, and for both his sake and the team's sake, that's what we're all hoping for.  But even if it doesn't show any damage of note, there's no way he's tradable for at least another handful of starts since even teams with extreme interest will want to know that the stiffness that cost him this start isn't the beginning of something much, much worse, and with less than 25 regular season starts being plausible for the remainder of the season, each one made while still in a Reds uniform becomes more and more costly in terms of what Jocketty can pry away in return.

The devastating injuries of the last two years effectively closed the book on the core of the Reds that won a pair of NL Central division crowns in 2010 and 2012, but while most of those were to players Cincinnati has signed well into the future, a potential injury to a player they don't have plans for down the road may actually be the one that bites them most in 2016.