Tom Archdeacon: Dragons' Cueto's talent talks loud, clear
He's shown it all season and Saturday afternoon he finally said it:
"I am a pitcher."
A faint smile crept over Johnny Cueto's face as he looked at his two Dayton Dragons teammates and then at Lois Spetter, who nodded approvingly:
Feeling sure of himself, Cueto delivered again, this time with more zip on his English:
"I am a pitcher!"
It was a few hours before the Dragons would play Beloit and Cueto was showing his stuff. Not on the field — where he's become one of the Cincinnati Reds' most promising prospects this season — but in a makeshift classroom at Fifth Third Field.
Under the guidance of Spetter — a retired English-as-a-second-language coordinator for the Huber Heights schools — the Dominican-born Cueto was taking part in club-sponsored English classes with Panamanian infielder Yoni Lasso and fellow Dominican Gerardo Cabrera, who's already proficient in the language after two years of junior college baseball in Miami.
In fact, Cabrera, a 22-year-old outfielder from Santo Domingo, acts as a clubhouse interpreter for the 20-year-old Cueto.
On the mound, the right-hander with the overpowering fastball needs no one to translate. The Dragons' ace is 5-1 with 2.72 earned run average and — going into today's start — has struck out 63 batters in 53 innings.
The Reds named him their minor league pitcher of the month for April. In May, Cueto followed a no-hitter with a one-hitter and threw 21 consecutive scoreless innings.
The Dragons are seeing what Johnny Almarez, the Reds' director of player development/international operations saw when — before a morning flight out of Santo Domingo a couple of years ago — he agreed to a just-past-dawn detour to San Pedro de Marcoris to watch Cueto put on a quick exhibition.
Almarez signed him on the spot and got him to the Reds' baseball academy — the first step for Cueto in a dream to follow Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa to the majors.
"Like a lot of Dominicans, Johnny has a real passion for the game," Dragons manager Billy Gardner said. "They know baseball could be that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and, for a lot of them, that's all they have."
The small island nation of 8 million has more baseball talent per capita than any place on Earth. More than 100 Dominican-born players were on Opening Day rosters in the major leagues.
Cueto first began playing baseball with a tree branch for a bat and an old piece of leather held together with shoe strings for a glove. He quit school in the ninth grade and, like many Dominicans, signed as a free agent for a pittance compared to the riches similar talent gets in the United States.
"That's how it is," Cabrera said, "but we just want a chance."
Cueto is getting that and said he hopes to be in the big leagues in three years. He said he wouldn't mind pitching to Sosa now: "I have my pitches. I have a fastball."
When it was mentioned that Almarez said it was 93-94 mph, Cueto shook his head before Cabrera could translate.
"Ninety five," he said in English, smiling. "Ninety six."