A long time ago, in a Votto window far, far away....
It is a period of division war. Reds
wangerhonkers, striking from a hidden
base, have won their first victory
against the evil Cardinal Empire.
During the battle, Reds spies managed
to steal secret plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the 1B Star, a
lineup battleship with enough
power to destroy an entire league.
Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents,
Walt Jocketty races home aboard his
starship, custodian of the stolen plans
that can save his franchise and restore
freedom to the galaxy...
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the Cincinnati Reds had mouths, ears, and wallets fat enough to induce scoliosis. Fresh off a breakthrough 2010 season that saw them claim their first division title in 15 years, the Reds opened their coffers to sign young, would-be cogs like Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto to savvy multiyear extensions, wisely locking them up through their arbitration years at reasonable rates in anticipation of their value skyrocketing. They followed that by identifying that they were flush with former first-round draftees and in need of a pitching boost following a disappointing 2011, and they traded from a surplus at peak value in order to land young ace Mat Latos.
Then, there was that golden week in early April of 2012, where franchise cornerstones Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips were both signed to extensions totaling 17 years and a staggering $297.5 million.
Three hundred million dollars can buy you a lot of things, and then some. It bought the entirety of Great American Ball Park, which was constructed at a cost of $290 million, a building finished in 2003 to accommodate and, in theory, to serve as the catalyst for the franchise's last 9 figure player's pursuit of records and history, though I'm sure that's not a memory that needs me recounting for you to remember.
That kind of financial outlay, especially for a small market franchise with a recent history to be ashamed of, was viewed as the kind of commitment that should serve as a cornerstone, not a cherry on top. Extending Votto was as much about inking a once in a generation player for life, regardless of cost, as it was about convincing both fans and potential free agents that the Reds had arrived, that they had not just found good players, but that they'd found an ownership group dedicated to keeping them; extending Brandon Phillips one week later helped reinforce that. It's the same mentality that has given pause to critics of the Seattle Mariners' signing of Robinson Cano, as it's a deal that may serve as much as a recruiting tool for other players as much as one done solely in a vacuum.
Up until today, the front office and ownership of the Cincinnati Reds had followed through on that unofficial pledge, and they'd done so in spades. The 2013 payroll reached nearly $107 million, which was both a team record and some $30.5 million higher than the payroll of that breakout 2010 roster. Multiple reasons have been cited for this increase in expense, from rising TV revenues and renegotiated contracts to winning teams and a core of young players actually worth investing in, but regardless of cause, it's impossible to say that the ownership group led by Bob Castellini and managed (generally) by Walt Jocketty has been unwilling to put their money where their mouth is.
Those free-spending days may be over, however, as today we found out from the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay that the Reds may well be maxed out. While speaking generally to Fay, Jocketty seemed to put the kibosh on dreams of an impact addition before the 2014 season begins, harkening back to the dark days of the Reds...gulp...having no money and talking to no one.
"It's been very quiet."
"I haven't had one discussion with another team or an agent."
"I don't see how we make it fit financially."
"We don't have the money."
Jocketty has never been afraid of double talk, and he's never been one to let the media play his own hand, but there's a league-wide level of inactivity, a full (albeit imperfect and incomplete) current roster, and a dearth of options on both the trade and free agent market that truly make his words echo with a piercing sharpness this time. There's an air of honesty in these statements, and to me, at least, it's less damning than it is encouraging.
The Reds are certainly talking to no one, but that may well be because there's not anyone out there they feel is both attainable and affordable, and if that's the case, I don't blame Walt one bit for this inactivity. Crucify him, if you will, for a lack of foresight about the current state of the market, but don't you dare begin to criticize him for being unwilling to overspend on the currently available players. He wanted Choo, and he chased Choo with apparent money that simply wasn't enough, but that doesn't mean that he should automatically throw that kind of money at the black hole that will be Nelson Cruz's contract.
Walt probably didn't call his stock broker in 2012 and say "I've got a hundred grand, and I want in on Facebook's IPO," find it had already been fully allocated, and instead decide to invest in Blockbuster and Rite Aid just because it was money to spend. He's not that stupid, and he's not going to be willing to overspend mightily to see merely marginal returns. That may mean that Billy Hamilton is the opening day CF, and it may mean that Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick's shredded shoulder will be fighting for the opening day LF job, but it also means that if a player not currently available becomes attainable in the near future, the Reds will be in the position to pounce. Walt's shopping for value, not for timing, much like someone who waits until December 26th to buy things on sale that others bought at twice the price just to open the day before.
Is that frustrating? Hell yes. It's eminently frustrating, but it's also prudent. Lest we forget, Walt's the third oldest GM in baseball (by a month), and he's entering into the final year of his contract; if panic and ulterior motives were what drove him, he'd have ample excuse to throw money around like mid-aughts Pacman. Instead, he's been patient, which is a prerogative he afforded himself 18 months ago when he decided to keep Joey Votto around for a decade longer than we all thought possible.
I'm not terribly enthused about how things have played out, but I don't fault the decisions made that led to this path. If the same synapses that were firing in Walt's brain a mere four years ago are still working today, I'm going to trust that today's news is just an honest indictment of a bad market with a twinge of future bargain hunting in mind.
I think his clout deserves that bit of deference.