"Cuetomania" has been born in KC

By Steve Sell
August 11, 2015

I hope that Kansas City Royals owner David Glass was watching Monday’s game against the Detroit Tigers closely.

It wasn’t just a game, it was a rock concert — starring Johnny Cueto.

“Cuetomania” officially has arrived. It was the Royals’ star acquisition’s first game at Kauffman Stadium and the fans responded with an energy and excitement perhaps rivaled only by the one-game playoff last year against Oakland.

How can you not like Cueto? With his flowing dreadlocks and his flashy style and smile, Royals fans were mesmerized with his every pitch. You never knew if he was going to quick pitch, give the shimmy and shake or come to a complete stop to freeze the hitter.

I am old enough to remember Luis Tiant during his heyday with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. We would try to imitate El Tiante as no other pitcher in the game had his pin-wheeling style. Tiant was often imitated but never duplicated. Like Cueto, for all his flash and dash he was one of baseball’s best pitchers.

It’s not often a Monday night game in Kansas City draws more than 35,000, but the attraction was Cueto. He had not won either of his first two starts with the Royals, though he had pitched well. His bullpen blew a 6-3 lead in his first game at Toronto and he lost 2-1 to Detroit in his second start. But the Royals gave him early breathing room with three first-inning runs — it as 2-0 after three batters — and Cueto masterfully took care of business from there.

The only question was whether or not he would finish the game. In Ned Yost’s old days before he loosened up, Cueto would have been gone after eight innings. But Yost gave the fans what they wanted and Cueto polished off the final three hitters with gusto.

The only problem with this feel-good story is that Cueto is a rental. His contract is up after this season and Glass has to decide if he wants to break the bank with a mega-contract the likes he’s never offered before. 

Cueto is 29. He has been durable and has several good years left. He’s been one of the five best pitchers in baseball over the last five years and is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s likely to command about id="mce_marker"00 million over the next five years and I can’t see Glass ponying up that amount of coin, even though he’s reportedly one of the richest owners in baseball. Until the last two years, he’s been as miserly as they come.

The Royals already have stretched their payroll to the limit. And the way things have gone this season, a lot of players are in line to see their contracts doubled or tripled. Lorenzo Cain is a bargain at $2.7 million. Mike Moustakas, though his production has fallen off the planet after a good first half, is earning $2.6. Salvador Perez is the greatest discount in baseball at id="mce_marker".4. And one can argue that Kendrys Morales is being underpaid at $8.5 as he’s among the best RBI players in the game.

Then you have some stinkers. Alex Rios will be cut after this season as he’s literally stealing money from the team at id="mce_marker"1 million. I don’t know what the buyout is for Jeremy Guthrie, but the Royals will certainly cut their losses as his $8.3 million is about equal to the runs he gives up every game. KC certainly can find a set-up man for less than the $5 million they are paying Luke Hochevar. They are going to be drug down by the $7.5 million that Omar Infante earns and Jason Vargas should be more than happy with the $8 million a year he receives for being merely average.

Glass and Dayton Moore are going to have to be creative if they want to bring back Cueto. It would help if the team could go all the way and win the World Series, as that would add money to the coffers.

What might help the Royals is that Cueto appears to feel comfortable in Kansas City and could take less money to play for a winner. There’s no team in baseball that relies more on Latin players than the Royals as they have created a culture that players from that part of the country are comfortable with. Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura make up 60 percent of the starting rotation and they’re all throwing to Perez, the second-best defensive catcher in the game behind the gold standard, Yadi Molina of St. Louis.

I can’t wait to see how this all works out. I know if I were Glass and Moore, I’d do everything in my power to bring Cueto back. The window of opportunity for a small-market team closes quickly as they simply can’t afford so many quality players. That’s why inexpensive pickups such as Chris Young, Ryan Madson and Kris Medlen have been so important this year.

All of this just goes to show that success comes with a price. It’s too bad the Royals don’t have the ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where money is no object.