Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Reds dilemma: Pay young stars or lose them

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To sign Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Dmitri Young and Pokey Reese to long-term deals — and keep them in Reds uniforms — it would boost Cincinnati's payroll by at least $16 million in 2003.

        The opening of the Reds' new ballpark that season is expected to generate between $20 million and $30 million more in revenues annually than does Cinergy Field. If it's $20 million more, then these four key players would eat up almost all the new revenues. Even by more liberal estimates, they'd eat up more than half the new revenues.

        That's why it's not a no-brainer for the Reds to sign their young nucleus to long-term contracts. And if they do, the Reds must make sure the deals don't hinder the players' value on the trade market, a big consideration.

        If Casey and Graves continue their current progress, they could be worth the $8 million a year they'd probably be earning in 2003. But is Young worth $7 million annually if he doesn't dramatically increase his home-run output? Is Reese worth $6 million per year if he doesn't improve his hitting? Better put: Could the Reds trade Young if he's making $7 million a season and Reese if he's making $6 million?

        That is the dilemma facing the Reds, especially general manager Jim Bowden.

        If the Reds can't sign Young and Reese for salaries at which the club feels they can trade them, then the Reds might have no choice but to let them leave via free agency after the 2002 season. The Reds' only compensation for letting them walk — besides saving a considerable amount of money — would be two draft choices for each.

        Bowden would not comment for this story. The players in question have said pretty much all they intend to say, which is, they are willing to take a little less to stay here, although not dramatically below market value.

        The popular thing to do would be to sign all four to long-term deals. All are fan favorites. But with no certainty that baseball is going to solve its have/have-not economy in the near-term, the small-revenue Reds cannot make long-term plans with the expectation they'll be able to cover the usual rate of inflation of team payroll with the usual projections on revenues without jettisoning some players.

        In the current economic climate, the Reds have to go the Oakland A's route: get young, stay relatively inexpensive, try to get better. When it comes to winning for less, there is no better strategy than stockpiling young arms like Chris Reitsma, Rob Bell and Brian Reith.

        Much as Reds fans like Young's hustle and clubhouse strengths, he has to increase his power to make a clear-cut case for the $6.5 million more per season he'd be earning than minor-league hotshot Adam Dunn in 2003. (Reds officials are also known to like, at the other 2003 outfield corner, Wily Mo Pena — acquired when the Reds shipped Drew Henson back to the Yankees — but Pena is a lot further from the big leagues than Dunn.)

        The club doesn't have a near-term solution for not signing Reese, however. David Espinosa at least three or four years away in Dayton. The operative comparison one keeps hearing is 11-year veteran Omar Vizquel, who recently signed a four-year contract averaging about $5 million a season. Is Reese worth more than Vizquel? Only if Reese hits more than he's hitting now. No club gives big money in a long-term deal to a player who hasn't yet shown a considerable likelihood of being able to put up big numbers.

        • For an outfielder (Young), $10 million is Jeromy Burnitz money (two-year deal last winter for a total of $20 million in 2002 and 2003). Last we checked, Young wasn't socking 30-plus home runs per season.

        • For a first baseman (Casey), $10 million is almost Todd Helton money. Helton signed a nine-year contract extension after last season that will have him making $12 million in Year Six, a baseball source said. Last we checked, Casey hadn't had 405 total bases or 147 RBI in a season.

        • For a closer (Graves), $10 million is Mariano Rivera money (a five-year player who recently signed a $40 million, four-year contract). Last we checked, Graves has four fewer World Championship rings than Rivera.

        • For a shortstop (Reese), $10 million is more than Barry Larkin money. And whether you think Larkin was worth the $9 million per year deal (2001-2003) he signed last year or not, he is an 11-time All-Star and a former National League MVP. In only four big-league seasons, Reese has only one fewer Gold Glove than the three Larkin won in 14 full-time seasons. But last we checked, Reese is nine Silver Slugger Awards behind Larkin.

        Still, there is a lot to like about the young Reds.

        • Reese has speed and he's a Gold Glove second baseman — and second base isn't even Reese's best position.

        • Graves doesn't have the fastball of Rivera or Billy Wagner, but gets the job done, and he clearly has the demeanor — stand-up guy, always wants the ball - the great closers possess.

        • Casey and Ken Griffey Jr. are the Reds' franchise players. Of all the Reds young Turks, he's the easiest one to project. There isn't a person in baseball who doesn't think he'll contend for a batting crown.

        • And Young is nothing less than the best-hustle, most give-you-all-I-got Red since Peter Edward Rose.

        What's workable for the long term?

        • Young is probably a $6 million a year player, somewhere between Mike Cameron ($5 million) and six-year player Rusty Greer ($7 million). Young has 1.5 years more service time than Geoff Jenkins, so it's a bit misleading for the Reds to compare Young to him — unless they point out Jenkins will be making $5 million in '03 and $8.25 in '04.

        • Reese is probably a $5 million a year player, similar to Vizquel. Without the bigger bat, Reese probably can't be moved by the Reds at $6 million.

        • Graves isn't Rivera, but he's probably just a notch behind Wagner, who is making $5 million this season and may average $9 million in a long-term deal.

        • Casey isn't Helton yet, but if two-year player Richie Sexson will be making $5 million in '03 and $8 million in '04, one can easily comprehend Casey being worth a long-term deal that averages $8 million per season. (Neatly, that puts him just behind Griffey's $9.5 million per season).
        If the Reds can't get these guys at those prices, they should probably just do year-by-year contracts through the arbitration process until the players can become free agents (Reese and Young after 2002; Graves and Casey after 2003; Boone after 2004).

        And none of this factors in third baseman Aaron Boone, who becomes a free agent after the 2004 season.

How we see it: Signing Casey is top priority

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