Johnny Cueto huge key to Reds' season

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- With the fervor of an angry mime, Reds pitching coach Bryan Price imitated a delivery toward home plate in the Cincinnati bullpen. First, Price lifted his leg slowly, then twisted his hips before finally finishing with a fury toward home.

"Trust location," Price told Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto.

For the next few moments, Price instructed Cueto where to land after his delivery. While throwing a pitch during the bullpen session, Cueto had landed to the left of the mound, while Price wanted him to land directly in front.

Cueto nodded intently.

Almost three years after making a spectacular debut for the Reds -- a sparkling one-hit, seven-inning outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks in April 2008 -- Cueto, 24, remains frustratingly maddening: brilliantly skilled, but wildly inconsistent.

This year, more than ever, the Reds need Cueto to take the next step toward stardom. While Aroldis Chapman has gotten most of the attention this spring, and Aaron Harang was given the Opening Day start, Cueto may hold the Reds' playoff chances in his powerful right arm. Nestled between Harang and Bronson Arroyo in the No. 2 spot in the Cincinnati rotation, the Reds are clearly asking Cueto to grow up.

Last year, Cueto raced to an 8-6 record with a 3.62 ERA in the first half of the year, but sputtered to a 3-5 record with a 5.81 ERA in the second half.

"I was a little tired because I had pitched so much," Cueto said. "First it was winter league, then the World Baseball Classic and then spring training and then the regular season. My arm was so tired that my ball had no life to it."

To prevent fatigue, this offseason the Reds prohibited Cueto from pitching in winter league. Already, Cueto said he notices a difference. The Reds say they are simply being cautious, since -- for many -- Cueto's slight stature (5-foot-10) lends to him becoming fatigued early.

Cueto's size has been a concern for years. In fact, it almost kept him from playing professional baseball.

At the tail end of 2003, a Dominican Republic trainer known around Latin baseball circles as "El Mago" ("The Magician") had an outfield prospect who could not hit, run or field particularly well. This, of course, was troubling for a businessman like El Mago. But the boy, named Johnny Cueto, threw the ball well from the outfield, so El Mago decided to turn him into a pitcher to see if he could turn a profit.

The boy quickly took to pitching, and by early 2004, he threw 91-92 mph. Yet teams shied away from Cueto because of his slight stature and thin frame. Some scouts thought Cueto had lied about his age, because what 18-year-old boy with his frame could throw so hard? Meanwhile, the boy's parents simply encouraged him to continue to work hard.

The boy learned not to be discouraged. Though he didn't usually like to watch television, Johnny always made sure to watch all of Pedro Martinez's starts for the Boston Red Sox. Cueto was encouraged to see that if Martinez could make it in the majors at his size, perhaps he could too.

One day, El Mago set up a workout for Cueto with the Red Sox.

"Look," El Mago told Boston scouts, "I've brought you the second coming of Pedro Martinez."

That day Cueto threw 92 mph, yet that was not enough to impress Boston's scouts. They offered him so little that Johnny's father told him, "Even I could give you that much money."

Bryan Price We're just trying to add some discipline, maintain a delivery and thought process throughout the course of an outing. What we want is a consistency and reliability to his pitches.

-- Reds pitching coach Bryan
Price on Johnny Cueto

At that point, almost everyone involved had gotten desperate. One night, El Mago called then-Reds scout Luis Baez.

"I have a prospect for you," El Mago told him.

Baez did not have the authority to sign players. Luckily, though, Johnny Almaraz -- the Reds' Latin American scouting director at the time -- was in the Dominican Republic. But there was a catch: Almaraz had an 11 a.m. flight the next day, so Cueto would have to appear for an early-morning workout.

At 7 a.m. the next day, Cueto threw 10-15 pitches, all of them clocked between 91-92 mph.

"I didn't even care about his size," Baez said. "We just saw the ability."

The Reds invited Cueto to their Dominican academy, where he spent the next two weeks training with Cincinnati coaches. Almost each day Cueto's mother Cristina showed up to check up on her boy.

Baez saw Cueto throw several bullpen sessions during that time and sent his reports to Almaraz. Shortly after, Almaraz decided to sign Cueto for $35,000 based on Baez's reports and the 10-15 pitches he saw during that early-morning workout.

"We told [Cueto] that we thought he could be a major leaguer quickly," Baez said.

In just three minor league seasons, Cueto was 29-15 with a 3.28 ERA. In his rookie year for the Reds in 2008, Cueto was 9-14 with a 4.81 ERA. Many expected him to make a big jump in 2009, but his fatigued arm did not allow it. A recent study by FanGraphs.com noted that in 2009 Cueto's swinging strike rate dropped (10.1 percent to 7.5 percent) and that his slider did not break as much, seemingly signs of a tired pitcher.

Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez said at times last year, Cueto's whole body appeared fatigued: His shoulders slumped, his arm hung limp and his head bowed.

"In the fifth inning of a lot of starts you noticed that he couldn't pitch anymore," Hernandez said.

But it's likely that Cueto's size isn't what caused him to tire. A study by Dr. Glenn Flesig -- the head researcher for the American Sports Medicine Institute, home of noted athletic orthopedist Dr. James Andrews -- determined that a pitcher's size does not dictate fatigue.

"There was no difference between the short and tall groups regarding how much load there was on the elbow related to Tommy John injury risk nor on the shoulder related to rotator cuff risk," wrote Fleisig in an e-mail. "The load stretching the front of the shoulder [related to front shoulder capsule injury risk] was actually less in the shorter group than taller group. Thus, the data does not support the theory that shorter pitchers produce greater loads [and injury risk] on their arms."

More than likely, Cueto did not arrive in spring training camp in adequate shape, despite having pitched so much during the winter. These days, Cueto is not the spindly pitcher the Reds signed in 2004. Instead, he carries a slight paunch -- the spoils of success.

It's almost impossible to relate how difficult it is for a person who comes from a poor country to handle excess when it's presented to them. But Cueto is making an effort to get in better shape.

Shortly after throwing a bullpen session this week, Cueto spent time with Reds trainers working out with a medicine ball. After they finished the exercise, Cueto ran up and down a hill near the playing fields.

"I see him working a little extra this year," said former Reds pitcher Mario Soto, a roving instruction during the spring.

Part of that extra work includes the pantomiming with Price.

"We're just trying to add some discipline, maintain a delivery and thought process throughout the course of an outing," Price said. "What we want is a consistency and reliability to his pitches. The more effort he expends the more energy that he needs, and it will affect him throughout the course of a season. Sometimes he works too hard to throw hard."

There are also other signs of maturity. Previously, Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez said Cueto often ignored autograph-seekers, but that he now happily spends time signing for fans.

After one of his workouts this week had ended, Cueto and Chapman were leaving one of the Reds' many playing fields at their spring training complex.

Cueto immediately turned toward a group of fans and began signing autographs. Chapman, who was headed toward the clubhouse, saw Cueto signing and also headed toward the fans and signed autographs.

Cueto a leader? Perhaps he has truly grown up.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.