Big deals show Reds are willing to spend
Let's start with the shocker of January 2010, which was good for baseball and even better for small-market teams everywhere. That's when those who run the Cincinnati Reds made Earth spin backward after they won a bidding war for flame-throwing pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
Since then, the Reds have shown the overall health and wealth of the game by writing checks to five other players for a collective amount that rivals the economies of some third-world countries. Including Chapman's deal, we're talking nearly $422 million.
Are these really the Reds?
"By comparison to other ballclubs, the Reds always have owned the reputation of not spending a lot of money, and you can go all the way back to the 1970s, when they had the Big Red Machine," said legendary announcer Marty Brennaman, referring to a franchise he has covered for nearly four decades.
Marge Schott was the Reds' owner who downsized the team's scouting department before saying, "Why should I pay all these guys money -- big money -- when all they do is watch games?"
There are other such stories involving Schott. That said, Reds owners were obsessed with using (ahem) prudence in financial matters long before she bought the franchise in 1984.
Following the 1978 season, the Reds refused to give perennial All-Star and hometown icon Pete Rose the money he commanded as the game's most sought-after free agent in history up to that point. He eventually signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. That was before and after cost-conscious Reds officials dismantled the Big Red Machine by allowing players to leave as free agents or through trades, ranging from Don Gullett to Tony Perez, and later George Foster.
You can even go back to Reds owner Bill DeWitt trading prolific slugger Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles before the 1966 season. DeWitt said it was because Robinson was "an old 30," but you have to think that money also was part of the decision.
Robinson was in his prime (translated: a bigger contract was on the horizon). We know this because he won the Triple Crown during his first season with the Orioles, and he made six more trips to the All-Star Game to complement his previous eight.
The Reds did sprint into the spending light for a moment before the 2000 season. They traded for Ken Griffey Jr., after they got approval from then owner Carl Lindner to sign the future Hall of Famer to a nine-year contract worth $112.5 million.
It's just that Jupiter was aligned with Mars for that one.
Griffey grew up in Cincinnati watching his father, Ken Sr., operate as a cog for the Big Red Machine. So Ken Jr. had the Reds in his heart, and he preferred Cincinnati as a place to raise his kids.
Consider, too, that Griffey was viewed as "a young 30" when he finished his last season with the Seattle Mariners in 1999, which meant the Reds actually got him for a discount.
Then along came that Chapman deal for the Reds, and it wasn't considered a discount at the time. Despite competitors with historically bigger pockets such as the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays also pursuing Chapman, the Reds acquired the Cuban defector with a contract worth $20.25 million.
To which Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips told me this week, after easing into a smile, "It really showed that the Reds have some money underneath the couch somewhere."
The couch. The rug. The dresser drawer.
Anywhere and everywhere, because the Reds' spending spree didn't end with Chapman.
After capturing the National League Central in 2010, the Reds gave right fielder Jay Bruce a deal worth $51 million for six years. Then they signed pitchers Johnny Cueto to a four-year deal for $27 million and Sean Marshall to a three-year deal for $16.5 million.
All of that was pouring the foundation for last month. First, the Reds gave first baseman Joey Votto the biggest contract in franchise history -- $225 million over 10 years. Then, five days later, they signed Phillips to a six-year deal for $72.5 million.
What's up with this?
"I can't speak about the '70s, '80s or '90s," said Votto, a Gold Glove Award winner who also earned the NL's MVP Award two years ago. "But I do know that this ownership group, headed by Mr. Bob Castellini has certainly ... well, if there was a [cheap] label on this organization, Mr. Castellini removed that label by taking a totally different approach,"
Castellini works through general manager Walt Jocketty, the fabulous baseball executive whose roots extend from the Oakland A's to the St. Louis Cardinals to his stint with the Reds, which began in January 2008. Three months before Jocketty was hired, Dusty Baker was named the Reds' manager, and Jocketty wisely retained him.
Then Jocketty enhanced a farm system that has produced the likes of Votto, Cueto and Bruce.
Other gifted prospects for the Reds are either on the roster (smooth-fielding shortstop Zack Cozart) or on the way (speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton), and to hear Votto tell it, they'll be around a while.
"The approach [the Reds' current ownership and management] has taken is to extend the contracts of the younger players through their prime years, and you can see as much by the big investment that they made in Brandon Phillips and myself," Votto said. "That's why I decided to sign long-term here. I genuinely believe in their direction. This organization just doesn't want to be associated with mediocrity."
Such also was the case during the Big Red Machine days.
Just as long as it didn't cost too much.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.