In baseball's low-revenue markets, flexibility comes at a premium. The ability to maneuver without albatross contracts constraining a team's payroll is the truest sign of good management.
All of this matters to the Cincinnati Reds because such an issue is their Catch-22. Ken Griffey Jr., baseball's biggest superstar when he joined the Reds in 2000, will make $12.5 million this season. Adam Dunn, the Reds' biggest producer, is due $13 million. That means more than 36 percent of Cincinnati's payroll goes to two players.
So while general manager Wayne Krivsky understands he needs a solid No. 3 starter to work behind Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, the team, as currently comprised, fills up the expected $70 million payroll. So no Carlos Silva, no Livan Hernandez – not even the return of Kyle Lohse.
If the Reds want any shot at overhauling themselves, they must trade Dunn or Junior – or both. Dunn, a 40-homer machine, would seem a perfect target if he didn't have a no-trade clause through June 15. Whichever team wants Dunn might get him to waive the contract provision with a bonus payment or contract extension. Selling Griffey isn't much easier. He's a 10-and-5 guy – 10 years in the big leagues, five with the same team – meaning he can veto any deal. And he'll be 38 next year.
Krivsky straddles a rough situation: win now to save his job or build the Reds and hope he'll be around to enjoy it when they win. And in his bubble, there's not much room to move.
Were Krivsky to unload Dunn for a top prospect and get another solid one for Griffey, the Reds could emerge with the best core in the game.
Brandon Phillips is a 30-home run, Gold Glove-caliber second baseman. Josh Hamilton, so stunningly talented, will only get better in center field as he continues to play. First baseman Joey Votto has raked at every minor-league level. And then there's Jay Bruce. He might be the best player in the minor leagues, a well-put-together Texan who slugged. .567 in nearly 200 Triple-A at-bats last season and will be 20 on Opening Day.
Can't forget the pitching, either. On top of Harang, the terminally underrated right-hander, and Arroyo, the Reds also boast one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Homer Bailey, and another who could be just as good: 21-year-old Dominican Johnny Cueto.
Point is, the Reds are a move, maybe two, from contending in the putrid Central. The talent is there, even if Krivsky unloads Dunn and Griffey
. So, Cincinnati hopes, is the motivation: The Reds will pay new manager Dusty Baker $3.5 million a year to straighten out a team that underachieved last year.
Bringing in Baker was, apparently, a sign that the Reds are serious about winning, and even if general wisdom doesn't say so, his credentials do: 14 seasons, three first-place finishes and a .527 winning percentage. Now, of course, comes the tough part: Convincing Cincinnati, seven years and running without a postseason appearance, that he can make a difference.