Thursday, April 10, 2008

Go, Johnny, go: A closer look at Cueto

If you didn't know who Johnny Cueto was before this season, you certainly do now.

I first alerted you to Cueto back in February when I checked him out at spring training, though I never thought he'd make this kind of impact this fast. In fact, I figured Homer Bailey, the Reds' much more heralded pitching prodigy, would be a better fantasy bet this year. Turns out Cueto had other plans, putting together an impressive spring and making the big league rotation while Bailey was sent down to the farm.

Cueto continued to turn heads with a 10-strikeout debut, and he followed that up with eight Ks on Tuesday night. And he hasn't walked a batter. The 22-year-old righty is now 1-0 with a 2.03 ERA and 0.45 WHIP. And chances are he's already been scooped up in all but the shallowest of leagues by now.

There's a lot to like about this kid. He's had a good amount of minor league seasoning so far and was the franchise's minor league pitcher of the year the past two seasons. In 2007, splitting time between Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, Cueto fanned 170 batters in 161 innings while walking just 34. He's shown that same command in the majors while reaching 96 mph with his fastball.

There's also some cause for concern here. Cueto can't possibly keep up this pace. The strikeouts might keep coming, but I can assure you he's eventually going to walk someone. His manager, Dusty Baker, doesn't exactly have a great history of handling young pitchers' arms. He's not the biggest guy, either (5-10, 185) for such a hard thrower. And about half of Cueto's starts this year will come at Great American Ball Park, site of the second most home runs per game last season.

The concerns are legit, but they're not dealbreakers. In short, Cueto has to be owned in all leagues, and he's a guy you keep riding until there are some trouble signs. Right now, he's on track to be this year's Francisco Liriano, a real fantasy difference-maker.

And he could really use a nickname.

Photo by The Associated Press.

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