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Red Sox free agent targets: Johnny Cueto

Spending big on Johnny Cueto comes with plenty of risks, but for a Red Sox team in need of a frontline arm, Cueto could be a risk worth taking.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If Dave Dombrowski is to be believed, the Red Sox's long, drawn-out search for an ace will finally come to an end over the next couple months.

The bigger question will be just who that pitcher is and what avenue the Red Sox take to acquire him.

Boston enters the offseason with enough money to compete in a free-agent market stocked with frontline pitching. Dombrowski also has a farm system brimming with talent, and his track record suggests he is well equipped to deal prospects for the type of elite arm the Red Sox are seeking.

Nevertheless, rarely has there been a group of free-agent starting pitchers as deep and talented as this one, and Boston is just as likely to fill its void in the rotation through the open market than anywhere else.

Among the top starters out there, however, determining which one the Red Sox might land is a harder proposition. Everyone is predicting that David Price will sign with the Cubs, and it's hard to imagine the Dodgers being outbid for Zack Greinke. Jordan Zimmermann is a possibility, yet as Ben Buchanan wrote last week, his 2015 campaign creates some cause for concern. Especially for an owner in John Henry who hasn't typically committed loads of money to veteran starters.

All of these reasons could make Johnny Cueto and the Red Sox a perfect pair this winter.

Cueto himself is coming off a season that raised doubts over his long-term ability to lead a rotation. A midsummer trade to the Royals led to persistent struggles down the stretch for Cueto, and despite a complete-game gem in the World Series, the Dominican Republic native tossed two stinkers during Kansas City's playoff run. His 4.76 ERA and 4.06 FIP in 13 starts for the Royals isn't anyone's idea of an ace-like performance.

Despite all this, Cueto has been one of the best and most consistent starters in baseball over the past four years. Dating back to 2012, Cueto ranks third in all of MLB with a 2.80 ERA, and ahead of pitchers like Price, Felix Hernandez and Madison Bumgarner (min. 500 IP).

Outside of an injury-plagued 2013, Cueto has also been quite durable, throwing over 200 innings and making over 30 starts in three of the past four years.

At his best, Cueto relies on a wide array of pitches that consistently induce weak contact. He throws a ton of four-seam fastballs, sinkers and cutters to generate groundballs, and his quirky wind-up has drawn comparisons to Red Sox legend Luis Tiant for the way in which it keeps hitters off balance. Cueto has also proven adept at holding runners on and slowing down would-be base stealers, which has contributed to his success in the big leagues.

He isn't a strikeout machine like Price or other top arms generally are, but Cueto picks up just enough whiffs to succeed, and his 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2012 is still among the top 20 in baseball over that time span.

Trying to determine why Cueto pitched so poorly in Kansas City will be vital for Dombrowski and the Red Sox. His groundball rate dipped down to just 42.6% in 2015 after topping 50% only two years ago, and whether that is a long-term issue or something Cueto can overcome remains to be seen. Given that his ERA sat nearly a run higher than his FIP during his time with the Royals, Cueto's second-half issues could have been as much a product of poor luck as anything else.

Some observers believe Cueto was pitching through an injury with Kansas City, and that an elbow issue contributed to his struggles. A glance at his average fastball velocity per month demonstrates a slight dip during the second half, but nothing that should raise too many eyebrows. Whether such concerns are indicative of a potential long-term problem is something that Boston will have to determine.

For a Red Sox team in desperate need of a frontline arm, Cueto comes with his fair share of uncertainty. If Boston is going to open its wallets for a free-agent hurler, spending big on Cueto comes with plenty of risk.

But the Red Sox could also stand to benefit from the doubts surrounding the right-hander. He likely won't be as expensive as Price or Greinke, and if Cueto can regain the form he showed for so many years with the Reds, his price tag might end up looking great in comparison. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Boston will land Cueto on a five-year, $115 million contract, and you're not going to get a much better deal for a starter with this kind of track record who is just turning 30.

That signing the righty wouldn't require the team to forfeit its first-round draft pick —unlike the other top free-agent starters—should only add to his attractiveness from a Red Sox perspective.

Cueto himself might be motivated to come to Boston as well. He has long idolized Pedro Martinez, and the thought of Pedro working with him come next spring is certainly an appealing one. In addition, those comparisons to Tiant have followed him throughout his career. There is reason to think that Cueto could thrive pitching in a Red Sox uniform, then, and in Fenway Park, especially if he can reclaim his groundball tendencies.

Some will point to his second half as proof that Cueto comes with far too many question marks, and that he can't excel during a pennant race when the games matter most. Yet Cueto is also just a few months removed from a sparkling first half with the Reds, when he posted a 2.62 ERA over 130.2 innings with 120 strikeouts and just 29 walks.

Sure, he's a risk, but he might just be a risk worth taking if you're Dombrowski and the Red Sox.