Major-league baseball players are paid to be good at the game, but that doesn't mean they don't understand team owners' bigger financial interests.
In recent months, former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos has made clear his disappointment with the team's front office for not extending him a genuine offer after he'd entered free agency in November (officials presented MLB's minimum qualifying offer of $18.4 million). Castellanos expanded upon those thoughts and more in the April 22 episode of The Chris Rose Rotation podcast, saying that the Reds didn't even call him after he'd opted out of that offer. That continued the team's trend of cutting payroll since at least the 2020 season, Castellanos said.
"The reason why gestures like that (getting a call) are important is because us as baseball players, we're out there playing with emotion. I cared about the Reds. I cared about the city of Cincinnati. I cared about the fans that went there every day," Castellanos, who has since joined the Philadelphia Phillies on a five-year, $100 million contract, told podcast host Chris Rose. "And just in return, you just want to make sure that you're cared for, as well. But that's when the business portion really loses."
"Players can't rationalize that because we didn't get here for looking at this game like a business. We got here looking at this game as our life," he added.
Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini and the team's front office are dealing with rapidly-falling fan enthusiasm and trust after the team lost free agents like Castellanos and traded away big contributors like Jesse Winker, third baseman Eugenio Suárez and pitcher Sonny Gray. Just before the start of the season, Castellini said in an interview that he wants to concentrate on younger players, causing fans to fear that 2022 would be yet another "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. The Reds have had just five winning seasons out of the last 15.
It appears that fan fears may have some merit, as Cincinnati is MLB's worst team with a record of just 3-13 as of April 25. The Reds' win over the St. Louis Cardinals on April 24 snapped an 11-game losing streak that had been in place since the home opener on April 12. That's when Phil Castellini, the Reds' chief operating officer and son of team owner Bob Castellini, taunted fans for questioning why the front office continues to trade productive players instead of building a World Series-contending team.
On The Chris Rose Rotation, Castellanos empathized with fans of the Reds and other franchises who feel left in the dust as team owners try to chase profit over players.
"Again, this is not me talking shit about anybody. This is just me observing what I have been around," Castellanos told Rose on the podcast. "The history of baseball in Cincinnati is second to none. The names that have gone through there, the history in that franchise — the fans are dying for something to really believe in again, to get behind, to feel proud of, to call their own. And right now, it's not happening. And that's sad, because as the generations pass and it doesn't become as prevalent. That's how you lose real fans. "
Castellanos' free agency story started last fall, before the lockout that would eventually halt all free agency negotiations, but he had produced well enough to look ahead long before that. The outfielder had an outstanding 2021 outing for the Reds in which he batted .309, slugged .576, had 34 home runs and knocked in 73 extra-base hits. Castellanos also won the Silver Slugger award and was a starter for the National League during last summer's MLB All-Star Game.
In November, Castellanos opted out of the final two years of his Reds contract, which was worth $16 million per year, to try to increase his pay. Castellanos then rejected the Reds' minimum qualifying offer, adding that he'd consider another offer from the Cincinnati Reds. "Why wouldn't I? I feel like there's still a lot of very valuable pieces that are very good to win with," he said at the time.
But talks between the Reds and Castellanos died down in December when MLB team owners initiated a player lockout that froze all free agency moves — along with workouts, spring training and the start of the 2022 season — because of a contract dispute. That lockout ended March 10, when MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association revealed that they had finally come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Still, the Reds ignored Castellanos and reportedly had no interest in re-signing the slugger. "We have not been engaged with his representatives," Reds general manager Nick Krall reportedly said in March. Castellanos eventually signed a five-year, $100 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies after players like right fielder Bryce Harper lobbied owner John Middleton to do so.
"It makes me feel good to be wanted. I mean, shit, at the end of the day as a baseball player, that's all you want to do is feel wanted — somebody to want you because they believe in you," Castellanos told Rose during the April 22 podcast.
Castellanos also praised Middleton for fronting the money to land Castellanos and other high-producing players for the season.
"It is a very serious organization about winning, and that starts with John Middleton. And I guess as an athlete, that's all you can ask for, right, is ownership that really gives a shit," Castellanos said.
But Castellanos also commented on baseball's bigger economic picture, noting the difference between owners of teams with big budgets and those with smaller budgets.
"Honestly, there are a lot of issues that need to get resolved between players and the owners. And, you know what? I wouldn't even say players and owners — I would say the wealthy owners and less wealthy owners," Castellanos said. " The Castellini family, who's a good family, are going to have way different ideas on what should be allowed competitively than the (Steve) Cohen family that owns the Mets."
Castellanos also noted that turning a game into more of a profit-driven business — as baseball has become in recent decades — has diminished some of the passion of players and fans.
"I think that — and again this is just my opinion — I think the idea of ownership in general without consequences on a game that can be won or lost is a backwards way to go about it. Like, how can someone indefinitely own baseball when baseball, it's never a constant variable?" Castellanos told Rose. "Let's say an owner that is obviously going about the business of baseball as a profit-first way of thinking about it. That's fine, but also be aware of what you're doing to your city. You're starving baseball out of these cities."
Listen to Castellanos' full interview on The Chris Rose Rotation podcast.
The Cincinnati Reds will host the San Diego Padres April 26-28 at Great American Ball Park.
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