COMMENTARY | Through the largesse of Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini, the Reds have surpassed the $100 million dollar payroll threshold in 2013, making them a mid-market payroll team (14th in payroll overall) despite having a city population under 300,000. The regional population of Greater Cincinnati...a.k.a. Reds Country.... boosts the population above the 2-miilion mark, but the small market cement that the Reds have to operate within will ultimately prevent them from ever producing enough revenue to compete with big market teams....at least in terms of payroll.
While Reds fans are currently enjoying a resurgence of past Reds success, the window of opportunity for the smallest of markets to succeed against the payroll odds will shatter at some point. First baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce will anchor the Reds through 2016, but beyond that the Reds will be forced to rely on their greatest asset -- developing young talent.
More committed payroll mean less margin for error, including the ability to effectively compensate for injuries to key players. The less financially flexible the team becomes, the more likely the small market fate becomes of watching star players sign with teams with ownerships that have more TV dollars than baseball sense.
Given such economics, it's unlikely that the Reds can afford much of a payroll increase, much less an increase anywhere near the 23-percent jump in payroll for 2013.
Reds Country will undoubtedly clamor for Reds ownership to somehow find a way to sign center fielder Shin-Soo Choo to a long-term deal, but if Choo keeps producing the way he has at the outset of 2013, he'll command upwards of $70-million over five years.
Unfortunately, that doesn't look doable based upon existing contract commitments and arbitration expectation for the Reds in 2014 and beyond.
Besides the star anchors of Votto, Bruce, and Phillips, a nucleus of the pitching staff -- Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton -- are under payroll control through the 2015 season.
Given these commitments, any contract extension in 2013 with more than an $8-million annual average seems unlikely for the Reds, and that could scratch impending free agent Bronson Arroyo and last-year arbitration eligible Homer Bailey.
On the other end of the spectrum, key players whose arbitration-eligible days are yet to come -- Todd Frazierand Zack Cozart -- have to be kept playing for relative peanuts until there is no other choice.
So who is left, or rather what is left?
There's only one player who the Reds should proactively try to sign to a long-term contract in 2013 -- Aroldis Chapman, whose contract ultimately guarantees that his last year for the Reds will be 2014.
Chapman's contract also guarantees that the money he makes will spike in 2014, potentially to the $10-million range once $3-miillion in bonus is converted when he's declared arbitration-eligible. To make matters worse, Chapman will draw an annual bonus of $1.25-million after the end of each season from 2014 through 2020, whether he's playing for the Reds or not.
The long and short of it is that the one contract extension that could gain the most value over the next five years is one extending Chapman.
In the short-term, Chapman will cost the Reds more if he remains a closer, but the time will come when The Cuban Missile will be a starter. Signing him to a contract extension to closer money (like Broxton's contract was thought to be) would be much more valuable if-and-when Chapman is an ace worth $24-million a year rather than $24-miilion over three years that the Reds could extend him through 2017 now.
How the Reds can extend Chapman is a different matter.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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