One by one they called. The first to phone free agent Eric Milton was Reds manager Dave Miley. Then it was first baseman Sean Casey. Next was closer Danny Graves, followed by starter Paul Wilson. Then Miley again. "Relentless," Milton says of the team's off-season pursuit. "Someone was calling every day, telling me that I should go to Cincinnati. It was nice to feel that needed."
Milton, 29, is a lefthander who last year went to the All-Star Game and won 14 games for the Phillies but also had a pedestrian 4.75 ERA and surrendered a league-high 43 home runs. The Reds' brass, however, believes he can rescue a rotation that ranked 15th in the National League in ERA (5.19) and was last in both homers allowed (236) and strikeouts (992). As for the players, the club's willingness to spend money on free agents--including the three-year, $25.5 million investment in Milton--signifies something more: "The start of a new era for this franchise," says Casey, the longest-tenured Red (he's entering his eighth season in Cincinnati), who excitedly called teammates upon hearing that Milton had signed. "We're usually signing pinch hitters, but this off-season really showed a commitment by this team to put a championship-caliber club out there."
Indeed, for perennially penny-pinching Cincinnati, whose $46.6 million payroll ranked 24th in the majors last year, it was an atypical winter. Given the green light by CEO Carl Lindner, the Reds signed a half-dozen free agents in a 26-day spree that raised the team's projected payroll to nearly $64 million, the highest in franchise history. Besides Milton they re-signed Wilson, their most reliable starter last year, to a two-year, $8.2 million deal; bolstered a tattered bullpen (the relievers' 5.19 ERA ranked 15th in the league) with the signings of lefties David Weathers (one year, $1.35 million) and Kent Mercker (two years, $2.6 million); and added third baseman Joe Randa (one year, $2.15 million), the kind of contact hitter the free-swinging lineup needs after leading the majors in strikeouts the last two seasons. Says general manager Dan O'Brien, "We outlined a list of off-season goals, and we were able to achieve each of them."
Milton, the last of the signees, took note. "I'm not sure I would have come here if they hadn't added those guys," says Milton, who was also courted by the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees. As he moves from one homer haven ( Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park) to another ( Great American Ballpark), Milton says he's not concerned about his propensity to give up the long ball or that he allowed the most fly outs in the league (282), in part because he's been working on a sinker to induce more ground balls.
"We've had a lot of young pitchers come in and out of here, and with [ Milton] you have a proven, experienced arm that we know we can count on," says Casey. "That is a true rarity on this team."
The starters expect to get more run support--last year the offense ranked 10th in the NL in scoring--with the reemergence of rightfielder Austin Kearns, who broke in to the majors in 2002 by hitting .315 with 13 homers in 372 at bats but hasn't played a full season since. An errant pitch broke his forearm last April, and though he returned in May, thumb surgery kept him sidelined for most of the next three months. "People have forgotten what kind of player he can be," says O'Brien. "He's a special player when he's healthy, and we need him in the lineup."
The same can be said of centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who last year was showing flashes of his old self until he tore his right hamstring in August and, for the third straight year, missed the last two months of the season. Still recovering, Griffey has been held out of spring training games but is expected to be ready for Opening Day.
This is an offense that isn't used to playing with a full deck: Last season's projected Opening Day lineup took the field for only one game, and 13 players combined for 17 stints on the disabled list. "After all our injuries, particularly in the outfield, I think we're due for a little good luck," O'Brien says. That would be a start, but it'll still take more than luck for these Reds to make the leap from small-market bottom-feeder to playoff contender. --A.C.
Last year Adam Dunn became the first player in National League history to drive in 100 runs without hitting a sacrifice fly.