Johnny Cueto – RHP Reds – Signed as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Cueto has impressed during each season since debuting in professional ball. The right-hander made his debut with the Gulf Coast Red Sox in 2005 and acquitted himself nicely, showing good command and an above average strikeout rate while moving between the rotation and the bullpen. A late season promotion to High-A Sarasota was meant to challenge Cueto, and he gave up two runs in six innings over two appearances after the move.
Moved back to Single-A Dayton to start the 2006 campaign, Cueto started striking out more batters and his ERA headed south as a result. His strikeout rate jumped from 8.08 K/9 the previous season to 9.67 for Dayton, all while still showing an excellent want rate. The result was a 2.59 ERA and more than five strikeouts per every walk (82/15 K/BB). A mid-season promotion back to Sarasota ensued, and Cueto continued looking like a very intriguing prospect. Opposing batters still weren't getting to him very often and his strikeout rate remained near one per inning. That his walk rate almost doubled was of concern, but it was an encouraging set of results.
Back at Sarasota to start this season, Cueto continued to show excellent results. In 78 1/3 innings over 14 starts before being promoted, the right-hander had a 3.33 ERA to go with a 72/21 K/BB ratio and just three homers allowed. Cueto had struggled with the long ball at times in previous seasons, but he's worked hard to limit mistakes up in the zone and it appeared to be paying off. That Sarasota is a pitcher's park certainly helped, but Double-A Chattanooga would prove a better test. In three starts since being promoted to the Southern League, Cueto has given up just one run while striking out 27 batters in 19 innings of work. He also had the opportunity to make a fill-in start for Triple-A Louisville, giving up two runs in five innings against a mediocre Charlotte lineup.
Cueto's overall numbers are impressive, but his recent streak of starts better highlights just how well he's pitching. Since the start of May, Cueto has an 80/10 K/BB and a 2.36 ERA while going at least six innings in 9-of-13 starts. Even more importantly, Cueto's recent streak is fully backed by his scouting report. The right-hander has excellent command of a low-to-mid-90s heater that can touch 96-97. He continues to make progress with his slider, and it's now a plus pitch. Former Reds starter Mario Soto taught Cueto a changeup before the 2006 campaign, and he continues to refine that pitch as well. It could be a third plus pitch in time, giving Cueto considerable potential.
The biggest negative with Cueto is his size, as he's listed at just 5'11" tall. That he's put on some weight prior to the season should help his durability and I'm typically not as worried about diminutive pitchers as most, so it's not something that knocks Cueto's prospect status down much. Still just 21-years-old, Cueto will likely finish the season out at Double-A. A late season promotion to Triple-A could happen if he keeps dominating, but it's more likely he'll see Louisville next spring. That means a mid-season promotion to the majors next season is a real possibility. Cueto doesn't have the elite fastball or breaking pitch to consider him a future ace, but both pitches grade out as above average and that his command is excellent means he could be a No. 2 starter.