Money game on, but Reds can't play

Saturday, November 7, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Albert Belle is testing the waters. Kevin Brown wants to know what he's worth. Mo Vaughn is exploring his options. Randy Johnson is investigating his market value.

Reds General Manager Jim Bowden stands with his nose pressed against the window, like an underfinanced kid in front of a candy store. He is a virtual voyeur in baseball's free agent marketplace, able only to covet the most coveted players on the auction block.

The price of greatness has gone up yet again in baseball. Everyone expected some high-end sticker shock after Mike Piazza signed that $91 million deal with the New York Mets. But what stunned Bowden and Reds Managing Executive John Allen Friday was the extent of the trickle-down inflation on lesser players.

Scott Brosius, fresh from his World Series triumph, signed a three-year contract with the New York Yankees for $15.75 million roughly the same rate the Reds pay only Barry Larkin.

"Unbelievable," Allen said. "He had four good games."

Devon White, a 35-year-old outfielder with no chance at Cooperstown, made a three-year deal with the Dodgers for $12.4 million.

"It was a very depressing day from our standpoint," Bowden said. "We knew our faces would be pressed up against the window with Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, and even Todd Stottlemyre on the second tier. But when we got down to tiers three and four, we had a few players in mind we wanted to upgrade with. Our budget for them was in the $1.5 to $2 million range. Their agents are asking for $4 to $5 million."

Nearing breaking point

Though baseball had much to celebrate in 1998 the home run feats of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa; the perfection of David Wells and the promise of Kerry Wood; the ensemble excellence of the Yankees the grand old game grows ever nearer its breaking point.

The financial disparities between big-money ballclubs and hand-to-mouth operations have grown so wide that several individual players now earn more than entire teams. None of the 14 clubs that failed to spend at least $44 million on player salaries made the playoffs this year. The Reds, who spent less than $25 million, needed a closing rush to finish 77-85.

To make the leap from mediocrity to contention, the Reds would require either a fresh supply of phenoms or a huge influx of cash. Neither possibility would seem plausible at this point, certainly not the expensive one.

"There's no way we can play in that league, and I don't think there's many teams that can," Allen said. "The creme de la creme the guys who are going to be getting $7 million and up there's just no way."

Tuesday's election endorsement of Baseball On Main has yet to translate into Cash In The Till, and won't for several more seasons. The prospect of a new ballpark (now tangible) and the possibility of Marge Schott selling control of the club (still tenuous) has brought hope to the beleaguered drones at Cinergy Field, but hope won't buy Bernie Williams.

Austerity still order of day

Allen declines to discuss specific salary projections for next season, but neither is he about to start throwing money around like Publishers Clearing House. The Reds' major-league roster will likely remain about one-third the price of baseball's biggest payroll. Austerity is still the order of the day.

"You have to do what we've normally done," Bowden said. "We wait for those free agents who get lost in the shuffle . . . In this marketplace, being more active in the trade market is the best way to acquire players."

Bowden said Friday he might be within days of "a big deal," but that it would involve a departure from philosophy with payroll ramifications. (Translated: An inexpensive prospect for a costly veteran). Bowden declined to discuss specific proposals, but the Reds clearly have too many first basemen and a higher opinion of Sean Casey than of Paul Konerko.

They could always make room for someone like Mo Vaughn. They just couldn't afford to pay him.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE