Dominant Cueto poised for stardom
Dominican righty wowing Class A teammates, Major Leaguers
By William S. Hupp / MLB.com
DAYTON -- The sun had barely risen on a sleepy morning in San Pedro de Marcoris, Dominican Republic, when Johnny Cueto toed the rubber, hoping to impress a man that could change his life.
That man was Johnny Almaraz, then the head of international scouting for the Cincinnati Reds, who had a 9:40 a.m. plane to catch back to the States. He had received a call a day earlier from a good friend who gushed about Cueto. Almaraz made the drive to Cueto's hometown to take a look at the young pitcher before rushing back to catch his flight.
So, Cueto arose early and pitched at 7 a.m. in a pickup game. Almaraz was impressed enough by what he saw after seven batters to sign Cueto at the local baseball academy on Feb. 8, 2004.
Says Almaraz of Cueto: "He's a young player with a lot of talent."
That tremendous upside of Cueto's was on full display this season against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers on May 13.
And even though his effort came in a rain-shortened, 6-0 win, his pitching was no less dazzling in throwing the first no-hitter in the history of the Class A Dayton Dragons franchise.
"I was throwing all my pitches [for strikes]," Cueto recalled through his interpreter, Dragons OF/DH Gerardo Cabrera. "I was [just] trying to locate, hit all my spots."
As if that performance wasn't enough, the 20-year-old Dominican followed it up with a one-hitter in his next outing on May 18, against the Fort Wayne Wizards. Those two starts were part of a streak of 19 straight scoreless innings by the diminutive right-hander.
Cueto uses a four-pitch repertoire, which includes a fastball, slider, a new and improved changeup and a sinker. His fastball, which tops out at 96 mph, is his best pitch.
But a big component of Cueto's arsenal this season has been that changeup, which he learned from former Reds great Mario Soto in Spring Training. Soto taught him how to throw the offspeed pitch, and gave the young righty some critical lessons on the mental side of pitching.
"The biggest key to his success has been Soto teaching him a changeup," Almaraz said. "Not only how to throw it, but commanding it, as well."
In only his first full season in professional baseball, Cueto has been dominant, and he has the statistics to prove it.
He is 7-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 13 starts. He has thrown two complete-game shutouts, and Midwest League opponents are hitting a measly .191 against him. He has struck out 76 batters and walked 14.
Those staggering numbers are what earned him Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Month honors for April and May.
"He came into the league more as a thrower," said Dragons manager Billy Gardner Jr. of Cueto. "But I think the biggest thing is [that] he is learning how to pitch."
Though he stands 6 feet tall and barely weighs 180 pounds, he has wowed both teammates and Major Leaguers.
"I was impressed," said Reds reliever Matt Belisle, who saw Cueto pitch when he was on a rehabilitation assignment in Dayton. "He's not a real big guy, but he's got a great arm, good stuff around the plate and [he] mixed it up."
Cueto hasn't lost since April 10, a run of 10 straight decisions in which he has gone 7-0.
"I work hard every day," Cueto said. "I try to make the best pitch with the best location."
"He has a very lively arm," said Dragons manager Billy Gardner Jr. "He's certainly improved his slider and changeup to go along with his overpowering fastball."
There is no doubt that Cueto has the physical tools to move up. And that should be coming soon, as he has indicated he is ready to try to move to the next level. A promotion to high Class A Sarasota would likely be his next destination.
But, as with any young player, there is room for improvement.
"The mental part," said Almaraz. "He needs to work on maintaining [his] poise -- not rushing. He can't relax in the late innings ... he's got to pitch for the entire game."
Cueto has been in the country for just over a year now. He's taking classes to improve his English, but his quiet, focused nature has suited him well in Dayton.
"His English classes are helping him a great deal," Gardner said. "Once he gets settled in and feels more comfortable with the language, he'll be more acclimated with [his] environment."
One thing that Cueto doesn't need acclimation to is Midwest League hitters, who are quickly finding out why many in the Reds organization believe he could be the ace of the future.
"His pitching speaks volumes," Gardner said. "When he's out there, whatever language it is, he's certainly been dominant for us here."
William S. Hupp is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.