For months (ok, years), Cincinnati baseball fans have been begging owner Bob Castellini to #SellTheReds. Now, someone with a much bigger platform is joining the chorus.
In a Dec. 12 opinion piece for The Athletic, longtime baseball writer Ken Rosenthal looks at the current state of MLB ownership as a whole and holds up the New York Mets' Steve Cohen as part of a "new breed of owner" – one who is "obsessed with winning" no matter their budget. Yes, Cohen is a wealthy man and the Mets have a 2023 projected budget of nearly $306 million (not including benefits, plus it's still hot-stove season), so putting winning over profits is a little easier for him. But, Rosenthal says, that's what fans want and is what shakes up the baseball standings. Treading water nets nothing, he implies.
That's where the Cincinnati Reds come in. The Reds' 2022 payroll was nearly $114 million, according to Sportrac, with first baseman Joey Votto claiming $25 million of that. Payroll was about $135 million in 2021 and $140 million in 2020. There's a downward pattern with what Castellini has been willing to spend on talent, which clearly affects a season's record and championship potential. In 2022, the Reds racked up 100 losses for just the second time in franchise history. The losing also kept more fans at home, with the team experiencing its lowest season attendance since 1984 – just 1,395,770 people saw the Reds play at Great American Ball Park in 2022.
Rosenthal, who has been covering sports since 1984 for publications like Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, writes that the Reds are one of three clubs that "need a change," lumping Cincinnati's home team with the Pittsburgh Pirates ($72.3 million in 2022 with a 62-100 record) and the Oakland A's ($55.3 million, 60-102). The Reds have the fourth-lowest 2023 estimated payroll in the league at $74 million, Rosenthal writes. He concedes that without a full-sport salary cap, smaller-market teams have more disadvantages, but that shouldn't stop at least attempting to be competitive.
"The game needs not only more motivated owners, but also more forward thinkers," Rosenthal writes.
Granted, new owners who lack the personal wealth of Cohen or even [San Diego Padres owner Peter] Seidler can do only so much in a sport facing a systemic divide between big markets and small. New Royals owner John Sherman is operating in Kansas City, not New York City. David Blitzer, who recently gained a 25 percent stake in the [Cleveland] Guardians with the option to become majority owner in six years, can’t snap his fingers and turn Cleveland into Chicago.All of this is not news to Cincinnati fans, who have long called for Castellini to sell the Reds, even before the demand became a viral hashtag. Just before opening day this year, fans raised more than $4,000 for a billboard urging Castellini to sell to someone who would invest in winning, or at least a legitimate playoff push (before the season, Castellini said that he wanted to concentrate on developing younger players at a smaller payroll, forcing a series of veteran cuts and trades). That I-75 billboard and fans' growing lack of trust in the team elicited a sharp response from the Reds' chief operating officer – and Bob Castellini's son – Phil Castellini, who told 700 AM WLW radio that Cincinnatians essentially just had to deal with it when the team repeatedly refuses to pay for productive veteran players. Phil Castellini later walked back his comments.
The big-market, small-market conundrum will be part of baseball as long as teams generate the majority of their revenues locally rather than nationally, opposite of the NFL. But spare me the sky-is-falling narrative regarding the game’s financial have-nots, which we’ve heard for pretty much the last century.
With their low payroll budget, it looks like the Reds are stacking 2023 with even more prospects, minor-league graduates and second-chancers, possibly to the consternation of Reds fans who haven't seen a division championship since 2012. Early during the off-season, the Reds traded infielder Kyle Farmer to the Minnesota Twins and acquired infielder Kevin Newman from the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Dauri Moreta. On Nov. 28, general manager Nick Krall signed catcher and Covington Catholic High School graduate Luke Maile to a one-year deal.
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