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Yankees potential trade target: Johnny Cueto

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Will Cincinnati's ace find himself in pinstripes this summer?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There are 16 days before the 2015 trade deadline, and the end of the All-Star break will set off the real beginning of trade season for teams that have decided they are out of the race for the postseason or need additional forces for a playoff push. The Yankees currently sit 3.5 games ahead of their AL East rivals, making them a prime candidate to reinforce their roster before July 31st.

The name that has been connected to the Yankees the most to this point has been Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto. Cincinnati is 15.5 games behind the division-leading Cardinals and could be set to sell off expiring contracts like Cueto's any day now. New York has sent scouts to multiple starts of Cueto's over the last few weeks, but they are hardly alone in their pursuit. Cueto is 6-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 113 strikeouts on the season, making him an intriguing option for any team on the hunt for additional starting pitching.

Unfortunately, this option doesn't come without cause for concern. Cueto felt stiffness in his elbow at the end of May before undergoing an MRI that revealed only inflammation. The MRI coming back clean is obviously good news, but trading for a pitcher whose elbow was barking a month and a half ago might not be the best strategy for a team that already has a frontline starter with elbow concerns sitting in the rotation. Trading prospects for Cueto while banking on his elbow's health only to have him go down between now and the playoffs would be disastrous, especially considering that his contract is up at the end of the year.

Pursuing a rental over a long-term investment is always an interesting way to try and get a bargain out of other teams. Before the team showed willingness to give Rob Refsnyder a shot at second base, it seemed like a way they might be able to get a discount on Cueto's services could be to take on Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and his contract to lessen the cost of prospects being parted with in the deal. Phillips is under contract through 2017 on a six-year, $72.5 million deal. You may remember that the Yankees have been connected to Phillips in the past, though nothing ultimately came of those rumors.

Adding a starting pitcher to the Yankees' rotation would mean needing to move someone to the bullpen to create room. The team seems adamant about not sending the struggling CC Sabathia out of the rotation, which would leave Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova as the prime candidates to lose their job if the Yankees acquired a pitcher. Eovaldi has been pitching much better since his clunker of an outing against the Marlins in Miami and Nova is still trying to shake off the rust of returning from Tommy John surgery.

Cueto is a bigger name than the Yankees have pursued at the trade deadline in quite some time, but they are also in a more unique position than they have been in the last couple years. Although they lead the division, no team is truly out of it to this point. New York has watched the playoffs from their sofas the last two years, so actually getting to the playoffs this year feels a little more important than it did before that two-year lapse. Is Cueto the missing piece they need to really put their division opponents in the dust? That's what the front office will have to decide in the next 16 days.