One of the major storylines of this past offseason was the extent to which the Reds would cut spending. General manager Nick Krall’s November quote about “aligning our payroll to our resources” became oft-repeated as Cincinnati parted with notable players like Sonny Gray, Wade Miley and Jesse Winker in money-saving moves while making virtually no effort to retain free agent slugger Nick Castellanos.
The Reds did reinvest some of the saved funds into modest one-year deals with free agents Tommy Pham, Donovan Solano, Hunter Strickland, and Colin Moran, plus took on more than $7MM of payroll expenses in the Amir Garrett–Mike Minor swap with the Royals. These present-minded moves, coupled with a Cincinnati farm system that has seen its stock rise over recent years, factored into Reds President and COO Phil Castellini’s March decree for fans to “have a little bit of faith in what we’re doing with your Cincinnati Reds.”
Fans were none too pleased with Castellini’s comments, as the on-paper unit the Reds are rolling out in 2022 houses considerably less star power than the 2021 team. The team also entered the new season with a payroll $9MM lighter than the previous year (per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). With several young pitchers forcing their way onto the team’s roster at eminently affordable rates, an argument can be made to have kept at least one of the team’s departed stars.
Early Tuesday, Phil Castellini joined WLW 700’s Scott Sloan and Mo Egger and was asked why fans should maintain trust in Reds leadership. Addressing this question, as well some fans’ calls to sell the team, Castellini replied:
“Well where are you gonna go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? That’s the other thing – you want to have this debate? If you want to look at what would you do with this team to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists – it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And so be careful what you ask for […] we’re doing the best we can do with the resources that we have.”
It’s bizarre to see an ownership figure take such a defensive stance to criticism and all but threaten the fans, particularly on Opening Day when the Reds sold more than 43,000 tickets. (Wednesday’s attendance, per Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer, was 10,976 — though weather surely impacted that total.)
Castellini’s comments also come on the heels of a second straight offseason punctuated by transactions more oriented toward cutting payroll than toward improving the on-field product. Asking Reds fans for patience is particularly brazen given that the team’s most recent rebuilding effort is still fresh in the minds of fans. The Reds, from 2015-16, traded away the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake — generally coming up empty on the vast majority of those deals.
What followed was a series of three straight last-place finishes in the National League Central from 2016-18, followed by a fourth-place finish in 2019. The Reds averaged a $95MM payroll during that string of last-place finishes, ranking 25th, 25th and 22nd in leaguewide payroll along the way. Cincinnati emerged from that rebuild/retooling process and spent aggressively in the 2019-20 offseason, signing Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos, Shogo Akiyama and Wade Miley. The stage appeared set for the Reds, buoyed by a strong rotation and a collection of impressive sluggers, to shift back into a prolonged win-now mindset.
Instead, the Reds went 31-29 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, got swept in the postseason without scoring a run, and immediately began taking another step back. Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Angels in a pure salary dump, and the Reds non-tendered their two main trade-deadline acquisitions: Archie Bradley and Brian Goodwin. Krall spoke of reallocating those resources to other areas of need. Months later, on Opening Day, Sean Doolittle proved to be the Reds’ lone Major League signing — at one year and $1.5MM. The 2021-22 offseason subsequently commenced with the aforementioned “align payroll to resources” comments from Krall that preceded further payroll reduction.
Despite that frustrating sequence, Castellini further preached fan patience and loyalty throughout the day yesterday, drawing comparisons to the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals who surprisingly emerged from a string of losing seasons en route to a Super Bowl appearance (and ignited fanbase) two months ago. In regards to the team’s payroll, Castellini also added that it “is still significantly more than the revenues we’re generating to produce it. […] For the last 16 years [we’ve] invested beyond our market size every single year.”
Those comments caused a stir among Reds fans who haven’t seen their team win a playoff series since 1995, and Castellini has since walked them back. They also come in conjunction with comments from Castellanos to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, wherein he blasts Reds ownership for “suffocating” baseball in a “great city like Cincinnati.” Castellanos made those comments for a piece that ran before Castellini made his comments Tuesday, but even though they’re not a direct reaction, the timing is nevertheless impeccable.
Beyond riling the fanbase though, the club president’s comments potentially shed some light onto the team’s plans moving forward. If the team is indeed operating at a deficit while in Cincinnati, then it’s unlikely the payroll is set to rise much any time soon. Of course, there’s no way to verify the veracity of Castellini’s claims, as teams choose not to open their books to the public. But it’s worth noting that following MLB’s offseason streaming agreements with Apple and Peacock, each club is now set to receive roughly $65MM in national television/streaming revenue alone. That doesn’t account for gate revenue, local broadcast deals and myriad other revenue sources for Major League clubs.
Perhaps further signaling the organization’s future direction, Castellini name-checked the club’s “Big Red Machine” days of the 1970’s, indicating the way to best emulate that successful era of Reds baseball was to invest in the team’s talent pipeline and grow from within. Placing an emphasis on internal development is certainly a practical approach, but it’s sure to draw skepticism from the fanbase in context of the Reds curtailing payroll at a time when they’d already graduated a significant amount of young talent to the majors. Cincinnati has just $44.5MM on the books in 2023 and does not have any guaranteed contracts for the 2024 season.