In rewarding Phillips and Votto, Reds take risk
CINCINNATI -- The Reds acquired Brandon Phillips almost six years ago to the day, and it was one of those end-of-spring fliers teams tend to take on out-of-options players who had either exhausted their opportunity -- or the patience of the higher-ups -- elsewhere.Phillips had been rushed to the big leagues by an Indians team that acquired him in the famous 2002 swap with Montreal that also netted Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, and then he was banished to the Minors after he fell on his face as a 22-year-old second baseman in 2003. Back then, Phillips didn't always flash the effervescent smile and engaging attitude that has made him such a fan favorite in the Queen City. He swung too hard and sulked too often. Still, the Indians' decision to deal him was short-sighted, and it was made at the behest of then-manager Eric Wedge, who didn't want Phillips to become some clubhouse cancer and instead wanted veteran Ramon Vazquez for his infield utility role.
That decision put Phillips on the block, and the Reds' decision to swoop in wasn't some dramatic instance of savvy and superior scouting.It was more along the lines of common sense. "I didn't," then-GM Wayne Krivsky said at the time, "want to miss out on an opportunity for a 24-year-old middle infielder that can play short and second." What an opportunity it was. In the six years since, Phillips has become a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner. By any measure, he's been one of the best second baseman in baseball, and he's been fully embraced by a team that just let him play and didn't try to change his personality, and a town that has fully embraced his charismatic qualities. So looking back, the Phillips acquisition was one of those small-risk/big-reward developments that small-market clubs need to succeed. You've got to get it right in your amateur scouting and your Minor League development, and you need a few lucky breaks along the way. And Phillips coming along and solidifying the second base spot and the top of the order has been a big, big break. The same can be said of Joey Votto's development into a perennial MVP presence. Yes, the Reds liked him a great deal when they took him with the 44th overall pick in the 2002 Draft, and the expectation was always that he'd become a regular in the big leagues. But a superstar? A guy who would average 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a three-year stretch? A guy who would sign a 12-year, $251.5 million extension? Anybody who tells you they saw that coming is either lying, or is in the Votto family. So now, with the ink dry on Phillips' six-year, $72.5 million extension, the Reds have locked up these two talents for the foreseeable future, and then some. No longer are they pivotal pieces acquired in subtle ways. Phillips and Votto are going to be paid top-market dollars well past their expected prime years, and it's a gigantic risk on the part of a Reds club that, if past attendance and payroll figures are any indication, will have to be abundantly economical in other facets of club construction to make it all work. Ultimately, though, it was owner Bob Castellini who made the decision to buy in with both guys. He loves Votto. He loves Phillips. And if he's willing to show that love in financial form, well, more power to him. "You have to take that into its context," Castellini reminded reporters. "You have your core signings. You do that to build a franchise foundation for years to come. I don't anticipate continuing to have all these huge contracts. But you build your franchise on the people who are in that dugout and on that field." And you do so with the hope that the fans in the stands will do their part, too. The Reds, who also have contractual ties to Jay Bruce through 2016 and Johnny Cueto and reliever Sean Marshall through 2015, are making these moves with the anticipation that they'll reap added revenues when they negotiate their next television deal and with the expectation that they'll regularly field a contender that will increase the action at the turnstiles. As general manager Walt Jocketty put it, "a lot of things have to go right," and it's a financial chance few small-market teams are willing to take. "Hopefully, the size of the market won't matter," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Hopefully, we can win a lot of games and draw some fans, because we depend on the fans. The commitment [ownership] is making is a major commitment. Evidently, they're not afraid of commitment." They weren't afraid to commit to Votto, even though he'll be 40 when his deal is complete. And they weren't afraid to commit to Phillips, even though he'll be 36 the conclusion of his deal and middle infielders don't age particularly well (anybody seen Chase Utley lately?). In both cases, though, the Reds invested in players who take their performance and their platform seriously. Votto is a cage rat who cannot be outworked, and Phillips brings as much energy to the drudgery of pregame routines as he does to the game itself. He also has a genuine love and appreciation for the place where he finally reached his potential. "I really didn't want to be a free agent," Phillips said, "regardless of what other guys were getting." Phillips' personality -- in particular, his ability and willingness to engage the fan base on Twitter -- only added to the appeal, from the Reds' perspective, of getting this deal done. "He's fantastic off the field," Castellini said. "He represents this franchise with a big smile, all the time." In many ways, the smiles Phillips and Votto have provided here go beyond any reasonable expectations that could have been placed upon them when first acquired. Nobody anticipated that the second-round selection and the late-spring flier would one day coerce this club into a $300 million spending spree. And so now the stakes are raised, for all involved. The small-risk/big-reward idea is no longer in play. The Reds are all-in.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.