Dragons Player in the Majors # 23: Johnny Cueto

Johnny Cueto with the Dragons in 2006.

By Tom Nichols | January 4, 2013 5:25 AM ET

Right-handed pitcher Johnny Cueto was part of a prospect-filled Dayton Dragons 2006 club. Just two years after his time in Dayton, he became the 23rd Dragons player to play in the Major Leagues.

Cueto was signed by the Reds as an 18-year-old international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. After 33 appearances over two seasons in the Reds organization, he opened the 2006 season in the Dragons starting rotation. The 2006 Dragons featured nine players who would go on to play in the Major Leagues, including star outfielder Jay Bruce, the club's first round pick the previous summer. The pitching staff was led by opening day starter Travis Wood, a former second round pick. The number two starter was Carlos Fisher, who would go on to enjoy one of the finest seasons in Dragons history and, like Wood, enjoy a Major League career. Hard-throwing left-hander Philippe Valiquette, a former seventh round pick, was followed in the rotation by former third round pick Zach Ward. Cueto began the season as the fifth starter.

Cueto's first start for the Dragons on April 10, 2006 against Lansing resulted in his only loss in a Dayton uniform. He allowed five runs in four innings, but walked none and struck out six. His second start more closely resembled the Cueto that Dragons fans would see that season. He fired six shutout innings against Fort Wayne, allowing just one hit with no walks and eight strikeouts.

On May 13, Cueto started the second game of a doubleheader at Wisconsin and tossed five no-hit innings, walking two and striking out eight. The game was shortened to five innings by rain, giving Cueto what remains to this day as the first and only no-hitter ever thrown by a Dragons pitcher. He followed that start with another sparkling appearance, allowing just one hit in a seven-inning complete game in the first game of a doubleheader at home against Fort Wayne. The Wizards' only hit was a double by Fort Wayne's Will Venable, a future Major Leaguer himself and the son of 2004 Dragons hitting coach Max Venable. The double by Venable was the only thing that prevented Cueto from back-to-back no-hitters and Minor League Baseball immortality.

Cueto's next start for the Dragons featured more of the same with seven scoreless innings against South Bend on only two hits with no walks and seven strikeouts. Over three consecutive starts, Cueto had allowed a total of three hits, no runs, struck out 22, and notched three wins. His record was 5-1 and he was a 20-year-old Midwest League dominator. After two straight no-decisions, he won three more starts to improve to 8-1 with a 2.59 ERA. He had walked 15 and struck out 82 on the year while opponents were batting just .191 against him. Cueto was selected to start the Midwest League All-Star Game for the Eastern Division and was named Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Month for both April and May. It all led to a promotion to Sarasota and the end of June.

"When he was here, the scouts complained a lot that he was too short," remembers Marc Katz of the Dayton Daily News (Cueto is listed at 5'10"). "You knew that he would be a Major Leaguer. Now, would he be a number one or number two guy? That was hard to tell but you knew he was going to be a Major Leaguer."

Cueto was the Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2006, and then won the same award in 2007 as he earned 12 more wins over the course of a season that began in Sarasota, passed through Double-A Chattanooga, and ended in Triple-A Louisville. In 2008, he made the Reds big league roster out of spring training as a 22-year-old number three starter.

Cueto's big league debut against Arizona on April 3, 2008 was quite memorable as he began his career by taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He left the game after seven innings, striking out 10. The only hit he allowed was a solo home run by Justin Upton in the sixth. He earned the win in a 3-2 Reds victory.

Cueto has shown improvement every season since his rookie year. After going 9-14 with a 4.81 earned run average in 2008, he reached the .500 mark in '09, going 11-11 with a 4.41 ERA. In 2010, he went 12-7, 3.64. Cueto missed the first month of the 2011 season with arm soreness but bounced back to win the Reds Pitcher of the Year honor, going 9-5 with a 2.31 ERA that would have ranked second in the National League if he had not finished six innings short of the minimum number to qualify.

Cueto put together a spectacular 2012 season for the Reds, emerging as one of baseball's elite starting pitchers. He went 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA, just missing the honor of becoming the Reds first 20-game winner since 1988. He finished fourth in the National League's Cy Young Award voting and was the clear choice as the Reds opening game starter in the National League Divisional Series. Game one of the NLDS featured major disappointment for Cueto as he was forced to leave the game after throwing just six pitches due to a strained oblique. Had the Reds reached the 2012 World Series, they might have had Cueto as an active contributor.

Through five big league seasons, Cueto is 60-46 with a 3.57 ERA. He will be only 27 years old when the 2013 season begins, having established himself as a genuine ace. Few pitchers in the game today are as highly-regarded.

Click Here for Johnny Cueto's career statistics, photos, and video clips.

Click Here for Johnny Cueto's Minor League statistics.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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