CINCINNATI -- The Yankees came calling on Eric Milton, willing to peel some bills out of their bulging money clip. The big-budget Red Sox and Dodgers also were interested in adding the left-hander to their playoff-caliber clubs.
In the end, he made a surprising choice: the late-arriving, small-market Cincinnati Reds.
Milton agreed to a $25.5 million, three-year deal Monday with a team that was late into the bidding and seemed an unlikely match for a pitcher who yearns to get back to the playoffs.
"I wouldn't be sitting here today if I didn't think we have a real chance of winning," Milton said.
The Reds think so, too, and were willing to structure his contract so he can leave if they don't win during his first two seasons. Milton got a $4 million signing bonus and base salaries of $4 million in 2005, $8.5 million in 2006 and $9 million in 2007, matching the total value of Matt Clement's deal with Boston.
After the 2006 season, Milton has the option of staying for the final year of the deal or going somewhere else.
"I want to be on a winner," Milton said. "That was a big key for me going into this whole free agent thing. I think this team is headed in the right direction now, and hopefully in the next couple of years we'll keep improving."
The Reds have a long way to go before they're a contender in the NL Central with the Cardinals, Astros and Cubs, but their moves in the past two weeks should make them much more competitive.
The Reds have gone four straight years without a winning season, their longest such stretch since 1945-55. They lost 93 games in 2003, their first season at Great American Ball Park, and cannibalized the team during a midseason trading spree to save money.
They were a little better last season, going 76-86 despite injuries that cost them Ken Griffey Jr., Austin Kearns and Sean Casey. The biggest problem was the pitching staff, which by most measures was the worst in franchise history. The Reds allowed a club-record 907 runs -- most in the majors -- and 236 homers, only three shy of the NL record.
Milton, 29, was Philadelphia's most consistent starter last season, going 14-6 with a 4.75 ERA. The Phillies decided not to offer salary arbitration to Milton, who made $9 million last season, and Kevin Millwood.
The Reds were one of the latecomers in talks with Milton, who was contacted by about six teams.
"I was very surprised," Milton said. "They had not been very active in the past."
Once they decided to go after him, they did it all-out. Casey, closer Danny Graves and starter Paul Wilson called Milton, and manager Dave Miley offered to drive down to his home in Florida for lunch.
"Things changed from week to week," Milton said. "New teams came up, and teams dropped out and went in different directions. Once they got into the mix, they were pretty relentless. It just made me feel really wanted, that's for sure."
Milton gives the Reds a proven left-hander in a rotation that desperately needed one. He went 71-57 with a 4.76 ERA in 200 appearances with Minnesota and Philadelphia, made the AL All-Star team in 2001, and went 1-0 with a 1.65 ERA with the Twins in the 2002 and 2003 playoffs.
Milton also pitched the fifth no-hitter in Twins' history on Sept. 11, 1999, striking out a career-high 13 Angels.
The Reds went into the offseason with a lot of holes to fill, especially on the pitching staff. Milton waited to see if they were serious about improving.
They kept Wilson, their top starter, by offering a two-year, $8.2 million deal, acquired right-handed starter Ramon Ortiz from Anaheim, and upgraded the bullpen with David Weathers, Ben Weber and Kent Mercker. They also filled their vacancy at third base by signing Joe Randa to a one-year, $2.15 million deal.
At that point, the Reds felt good about their chances of getting Milton, who wanted to play near the East Coast to be close to his Florida home. He was convinced.
"He did his homework," general manager Dan O'Brien said. "He had a pretty good idea about who and what we were all about. So with that in mind, we felt very good about our chances. We were very aggressive in our approach and pursuit."