Baseball fans in Cincinnati have been in an uproar as opening day approaches.
It happens just about every year, of course. The Cincinnati Reds — or any Major League Baseball team, honestly — trades a few favorite players, fans yell about ownership not caring or investing enough, and then the team either significantly goes over .500 or has a spectacularly awful season, thus "proving" someone right. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But for this season, the buzz from the fans ramped up a bit, especially once former outfielder Nick Castellanos hit the free agency market in November after opting out of the final two years of his Reds contract, which was worth $16 million per year. Castellanos — a fan favorite in Cincinnati and someone who was considered a top free agent after an outstanding 2021 outing in which he batted .309, slugged .576, had 34 home runs and knocked in 73 extra-base hits — then rejected the Reds' Nov. 7 qualifying offer of $18.4 million (the figure set across Major League Baseball for the 2022 season). The Reds were in a holding pattern once December hit, unable to negotiate contracts or make trades due to the 99-day lockout that wrapped up in early March. But even after trading resumed, the Reds didn't pursue Castellanos, who happily went to the Philadelphia Phillies on a five-year, $100 million contract.
And the Cincinnati Reds' front office has gotten rid of other big contributors, too. In addition to losing Castellanos to free agency, the Reds recently traded away All-Star outfielder Jesse Winker, third baseman Eugenio Suárez and pitcher Sonny Gray. In return, Cincinnati acquired young players and prospects and cut payroll. The Reds also recently agreed to contracts with a number of their own pitchers like Luis Castillo, avoiding arbitration, plus the team picked up outfielder Tommy Pham and reliever Hunter Strickland.
So, fans believe, 2022 has all the hallmarks of being a "rebuilding season" rather than a legitimate push for playoff glory (During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Reds made it to the Wild Card playoffs but lost the first round to the Atlanta Braves without scoring at all. Before that, Cincinnati hadn't been to the postseason since 2013). But Reds owner Bob Castellini insists that's not necessarily the case.
In an interview with MLB's Tommy Thrall, Castellini says that the Reds's front office does have its eyes on the prize, despite fans' worries otherwise.
"It is simply untrue that our resolve to win has waned in any way. I really want our fans to hear that directly from me," Castellini says.
Castellini says that pumping money into the team's farm system is important, noting that the Reds' minor-league system pushed 18 players onto the 2021 regular-season roster, including National League Rookie of the Year Jonathan India.
"We’ve seen that our focus on sustainability through acquiring and developing talent is working," Castellini says. "We know that the investments in scouting and player development that we’ve made since 2019 are paying off."
Fans and players may have a different idea of what constitutes an "investment," though. During a recent spot interview with John Clark, a reporter with NBC Sports Philadelphia, Castellanos praised Phillies owner John Middleton for fronting the money needed to win.
"When you hear that John Middleton said 'We can go over the luxury tax because you're the right player' and the only player that they would have done this for, how much does that mean to you?" Clark asked.
"I mean, that's a lot of respect. At the end of the day, baseball comes down to ownership. The owner either wants to invest and cares about winning or doesn't," Castellanos replied. "So it speaks a lot to who he is. So Philadelphia should be pumped that that guy is behind the Phillies."
The unspoken part in that interview, of course, was that Cincinnati Reds owner Castellini did not invest in Castellanos, who won the 2021 Silver Slugger award and was a starter for the National League during ththe MLB All-Star Game (former teammate Winker joined in that honor).
Longtime Reds first baseman Joey Votto even has voiced some displeasure.
"I have higher expectations to be part of other large Major League moments," Votto said in a recent interview. "That’s without question concerning to me. I’ve been in the same uniform my entire career. We haven’t done enough winning."
But Castellini says the Reds are making investments.
"The motivation is and has been about winning. And establishing sustainability," Castellini tells Thrall in the MLB interview. "We traded three All-Stars, which felt very personal to all of us. But winning in the playoffs has got to be our primary focus – short term and long term. The trades were about moving players to maximize return, aiming for the best talent and highest upside possible."
Read Castellini's full interview.
The 2022 MLB season will start on April 7.