I have Johnny Cueto on the brain at the moment. Indulge me, if you will.
Perhaps it’s just my age kicking in, what with the inherent nostalgia that inevitably comes with it, but the former ace of our Cincinnati Reds has jumped back to the front of my brain of late. In many ways, it’s hard to think that it will be four years in July that the Reds flipped him to the Kansas City Royals for their eventual World Series title run. Though, that’s admittedly as much due to the copious losing the Reds have done in that span and the numbing effect it has had on us as it is what Cueto has accomplished in that span.
Cueto, I think, emerged to haunt my cerebellum last week when the news that the Reds had designated Brandon Finnegan for assignment, effectively calling time on the latter’s incredibly disappointing stint with the Reds. Finnegan, you’ll remember, came over as the prize of the trade with the Royals back in 2015, along with the since designated John Lamb and the again-optioned Cody Reed. Cueto, you’ll remember, only had the last two months of the 2015 season left under team control, so despite his absurd excellence and the Royals shrinking window to capitalize with a World Series title, the Reds did have very little leverage in what they could command in return, but that was still - on the surface, at least - a pretty solid haul for their resident ace.
Three arms, all either current or former Top 100 overall prospects, all at various stages of their prospect-to-pro development. Yet here we are, three plus years later, and we’ve seen Finnegan and Lamb decimated by injuries - one to shoulders, one to an elbow - while Reed has only mercifully run into the other dreaded malady for pitchers: finding the goddam plate.
Johnny Cueto was the last true ace the Reds have been able to roll out, and to reference the age I felt earlier in this post, I think we, as Reds fans, will only remember him in increasingly fond ways as his tenure as a Red moves on. He can lay claim to a 2nd place finish in a Cy Young Award voting, after all, which for a franchise that has somehow never once managed to have a pitcher win the award is essentially the greatest of all compliments.
That harkens to the larger point here, I think, as I try to process the news that stud pitching prospect Hunter Greene is heading for Tommy John surgery, something that will hopefully only set him back some 12 additional months from the time of the slice. The Reds have been yearning to replace Cueto since they let him go, and that certainly will continue to make him stand out like a beacon in Reds pitching history, but it’s also hard to ignore that from the time of Jose Rijo until Cueto came along, the Reds were desperately in search of capable pitching for the longest of times until Cueto finally emerged as their horse.
The news about Greene, in a vacuum, would be devastating. The St. Louis Cardinals lost consensus Top 10 overall prospect Alex Reyes to season-ending injuries in back to back years in 2017 and 2018, for instance, and that was certainly news. But for the Reds, these Reds, the news that yet another promising, could-be ace has hit a major, major bump in the road is hard not to think about when flush with surrounding painful pitching matter.
Finnegan, for one. Lamb and Reed, too. Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett, Keury Mella, Nick Howard, Nick Travieso. Hell, even Raisel Iglesias and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom electrified our dreams before being pushed to the back of the bullpen. Michael Lorenzen. Tony Cingrani. Travis Wood. Homer Bailey.
It’s a cavalcade of false hopes, over-hype, under-performance, and pure crap luck, all rolled together to warrant any conspiracy theorist at least the time of day to hear him out. All this from the city that started pro baseball and has still never, in its era, claimed an NL Cy Young Award.
I should probably point out at this juncture that it took a link to the past to bring Johnny Cueto back into my brain, since that, too, is important. Cueto, of course, hasn’t thrown a big league pitch since July 28, 2018, and won’t do so at all this year if most accounts are to be believed. In the midst of the 6 year, $130 million deal he signed with the San Francisco Giants, he, too, needed Tommy John surgery, and that will have him on the skids for what will amount to some 21 months of actual big league action, proving that even the best and greatest of the bunch are inevitably going to fall victim to this brutal art we casualy refer to as pitching.
There is no bow I can tie around this. Hunter Greene did not injure his elbow because he is part of the Cincinnati Reds. The Cincinnati Reds, like every other organization, still roll out a yearly myriad of pitchers who don’t need their arms sliced and reformed. What is worth pointing out is that the hopes of, say, Cardinals fans sure don’t seem to dent nearly as much when news like that of Reyes hits them, in part because they’ve been gifted with the ability to watch excellence on the mound in the form of Chris Carpenter (gross) and Adam Wainwright amon many of late, including a litany of arms that have consistently reached a level of decency that leaves the average Reds starter in the dust.
(Carpenter and Wainwright both had Tommy John surgeries in their career, in case you missed that pertinent point.)
And it’s that reference that is the closest thing to a bow I can wrap on this. Hunter Greene having Tommy John surgery is a major bummer, but it also might not have any real bearing on his future ability to be a dominant big league pitcher. He’s only 19 years old, after all, and as previously mentioned, Tommy John surgery is far from a career-threatening surgery these days. The issue is that it’s going to force an additional 12 months of “Hunter Greene, next Reds ace” into mythological territory yet again, and there is no true heir apparent in the system to catch our eye.
Hunter Greene could very well end up a dominant big league pitcher in his own right, but if the Reds don’t find a way to make sure he’s not the only damn arm they have at that time - something that will remain a long shot in everyone’s minds until they actually, y’know, manage to freaking do that again - every single scratch and bump he hits is going to resonate through the Reds fanbase like a toe-stub or a root canal or stepping on an inconveniently placed LEGO.
*Some obvious present-day Reds pitchers were deliberately omitted from this article to avoid cursing their chances at being the ‘next Reds ace’