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Window to Win Still Open for Small-Market Cincinnati Reds

But Mega-Payroll Doomsday Is on the Horizon

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The Cincinnati Reds stretched well beyond the team's normal financial limits last year by posting a payroll of more than $111 million.

The payroll for 28 players was the 13th-highest payroll in baseball in 2013 and the first time in the 21st century that the Reds had placed a payroll in the top half of the 30-team major leagues, according to the Baseball Prospectus database.

The ownership of the Reds under Robert Castellini has made an unprecedented financial commitment to put a winner on the field. But even in an unprecedented time of riches flowing to teams through huge television contracts and modest revenue sharing, the Reds won't be able to keep up with the big spenders of the mega markets, who will ensure, along with the players' union, that a truly hard salary cap like that adopted by the NFL never sees the light of day in baseball.

Quadruple-A Minor Leagues

It takes more than just money for a team to win in the major leagues, but it sure does help, especially now that mega-market teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees are going to continue to force free agent contracts higher and higher. That will keep truly small-market teams out of the bidding for the players they have developed once no longer under team control.

The annual churn of players developed by smaller-market teams for the larger-market teams to pilfer reduces the parent clubs responsible for the development to nothing more than an affiliation of a Quadruple-A minor league.

Among the handful of small-market teams who stand to be crushed by the mega-market dollar squeeze are the Cincinnati Reds, whose recent success is less likely to last now that team payrolls are reaching the quarter-billion dollar mark. Even some of the counterbalances for a small-market team to overcome the dollar odds against them -- like player control for six years through the arbitration process and qualifying offer draft pick compensation -- may not survive the wrecking ball positioned to ensure that small market teams are deprived of a level playing field so that the mega markets and their population of fans can be all but guaranteed a team to cheer for in the postseason.

How the Reds are Positioned to Survive the Money Onslaught

The Reds should remain competitive through 2016, but will start to feel the effects of the booming baseball business in 2014. The loss of free agent pitcher Bronson Arroyo is one that is hardly insurmountable for the Reds if pitcher Tony Cingrani continues to develop into a front end of the rotation starter and injuries do not impact the rotation overall. The loss of on-base percentage machine, leadoff hitter and center fielder Shin-Soo Choo is likewise one that can be addressed with improvement defensively and speed on the base paths through the agency of Billy Hamilton.

The success of Cingrani and Hamilton should factor significantly into determining the overall success the Reds have in 2014, but even without the greatest of performances by either or both, the Reds are still positioned to contend in 2014 based upon the retention of their core players of the past five years -- Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce.

Also, having the core of the pitching staff under team control through the 2014 season helps the Reds remain at the same competitive level the team has achieved by reaching the postseason three of the past four years.

The Reds After 2014

The parade of watching young star players leave Cincinnati for the dollar-green pastures of bigger markets will start in earnest after 2014 with the likely departure of Homer Bailey through free agency. The seven-year, $215-million deal the Dodgers gave Clayton Kershaw set a new threshold for young starting pitchers entering their free agency years, and the Reds will have a difficult time finding the kind of money it will take to keep Bailey with the team past 2014.

The loss of Bailey would leave the Reds with a hole in the team's starting rotation, but the core of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani would remain for the 2015 season. Unfortunately, the Reds will watch Latos and Cueto depart the same way after the 2015 season that Bailey will leave after this upcoming season.

The Reds will have to develop young pitching to replace the core of the team's starting rotation after 2015, but the Reds will remain strong positionally with their core of Votto, Phillips and Bruce through 2016, as well as a group who will be under team control through the arbitration process -- Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco and Billy Hamilton.

As long as the Reds can keep a winning nucleus of players on the field and develop talent to effectively replace the players they will have to lose to the free agency system that serves larger markets than the Reds, winning baseball will continue in Cincinnati.

But the margin for error will be slight. The Reds simply won't be able to afford bad contracts like the ones that currently hamper the team in Ryan Ludwick, Sean Marshall and Johnathan Broxton ($40 million owed over next two seasons). Also, the cost of doing business undoubtedly is going to be an increasingly greater challenge for the Reds despite the unprecedented spike in payroll for the Reds in 2013.

Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years and maintains the Football Nostradamus website. You can read his articles about the Reds here.

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