The Cincinnati Reds' annual winter caravan visited a variety of locales in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia over the past few days (including, most notably, Athens, Ohio -- or, as my fellow Ohio University graduates might refer to it, the Navel of the Universe and the Land of Milk and Honey). While the point of these caravans is always to generate interest in the season ahead, the Reds seemed to make attendance a particularly pointed issue in 2011.
"In order for us to maintain what we're doing here and the signings that we're making, we have to sell more season tickets, all the way down to the single tickets," president and chief executive officer Bob Castellini told reporters. "Everybody in our organization understands that. We're all dedicated to make that happen." It doesn't take an OU economics major to do the math. The Reds, after all, have shelled out $151 million in long-term commitments to Joey Votto, Bronson Arroyo, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto this winter. This is a substantial financial investment in the future, and it's one that has been made with the general expectation that Reds fans, who have earned Cincinnati a reputation as one of the best baseball towns in the country, will turn out at Great American Ball Park and support the club. For all the strides the Reds made on the field last year, capturing their first NL Central title in 15 years, they didn't fare quite as well at the gates. Attendance rose modestly from 1.75 million in 2009 to 2.06 million in 2010, with the numbers beginning to trend upward in the season's second half. They might have had the sixth-best record in baseball, but the Reds ranked 20th at the turnstiles. "It takes a year or two after you start to win [for attendance to pick up]," Castellini admitted. "Last year was our first year. We're on target. We feel like we know what to expect. We're going to have a good season this year all the way around -- in the stands and on the field." On the field, the challenge has risen, as the improvements made by the Brewers and, to a lesser degree, the Cubs could make the Central, which also includes the Cardinals, at least a four-team race. The Reds' offseason, meanwhile, has centered not on external additions but the kind of wallet-lightening payouts it takes to keep a young core together and content. It is to Castellini's credit that he is backing up the promise he made when he bought the club five years ago and vowed to build a winner. The Reds have scouted, drafted, traded and signed their way back into contention, and now their owner is taking that next necessary step of paying some prime pieces of the assembled talent their market worth. But for all the strides made in that area this winter, the case of Votto best illustrates the cyclical nature of this sport for small- and mid-market teams. Yes, the Reds were able to buy out Votto's arbitration years, with a good chunk of their $51 million commitment to him back-loaded into 2013, when he'll receive $19 million. And yes, it made for good headlines to say the Reds signed the reigning MVP to a long-term deal. But the fact of the matter is that Votto's free-agent clock is set to tick no later in the wake of the deal than it was beforehand. What the Reds bought was not more service time out of Votto but, simply, more cost control (and, of course, more risk, should Votto become injured or regress) during his arbitration-eligible years. As valuable as Votto is, to suggest the fortunes of the Reds in 2014 and beyond are directly tied to him being a member of the team would be a bit extreme, as there are plenty of dynamics that go into building a winner. But still, the prospect of losing a player of Votto's caliber -- a player groomed in the Cincinnati system, no less -- not all that long after he breaks through at the Major League level is part of the inherent frustration that comes with the market size. There are two ways to handle such a development. For one, you can counter it with a strong farm system that routinely pumps out impact players. And again, to their credit, the Reds have excelled in this area in recent years, to the point where their current farm system not only rates highly at the upper levels, where they have several high-caliber pitchers and middle-of-the-diamond prospects, but also in the lower levels, where they are grooming some promising Latin American kids. But with such youth, of course, comes great uncertainty. The other solution is to keep players like Votto from ever walking away. And as Castellini's comments make clear, the only way that can happen is with more fan support in the coming years. For inspiration, Reds fans need look no further than the model established by the division-rival Cardinals, who routinely outspend their market size because of their rampant fan support, in good seasons and bad. This Reds team certainly maintains the goods to compete, though, as noted above, they'll face quite a challenge in trying to repeat as division winners this year. It will be interesting to note how their fortunes, positive or negative, affect the gates, because managing cycles, which can run their course quickly in this sport, is pivotal to enjoying long-term success. Some of that management is in the Reds' hands, with regard to whether they're able keep the farm system flush with talent. But some is ultimately up to the fans, as well. And as they allocated their available resources to in-house talent, rather than outside augmentation, that's the message the Reds hammered home this winter.
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.