The Cincinnati Reds didn’t make the kind of expensive, high-profile moves that other major league teams did this off-season, but they’re hoping some relatively inexpensive additions pay off in improvement in both the standings and at the gate.
While the small-market Reds watched teams such as the Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins spend hundreds of millions, Cincinnati responded to a disappointing third-place finish by signing outfielder Ryan Ludwick and closer Ryan Madson. The Reds also made trades to acquire starting pitcher Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres and left-handed reliever Sean Marshall from the Chicago Cubs.
The Reds’ chance to win the conference title is also boosted by the departures of big names from their National League Central rivals. The world champion St. Louis Cardinals lost first baseman Albert Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $250 million deal with the Angels. The Milwaukee Brewers lost first baseman Prince Fielder, who signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers.
After coming off an NL Central title in 2010 and their first playoff appearance since 1995, last season the Reds stumbled to a 79-83 finish. Ludwick, 33, will give them a right-handed bat with some pop in a lineup that already includes young power hitters Jay Bruce and 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto. As for the additions to the bullpen, Madson is a proven closer, Latos, 24, is a solid young middle of the rotation righthander, and Marshall is a reliable lefty reliever.
The Reds were in the middle of the pack in the MLB last season in payroll (18th, about $75 million). They drew 27,327 to 42,000-seat Great American Ballpark (16th in MLB). The one-year deals for Ludwick ($2.5 million) and Madson ($8.5 million) were cheap compared to other team’s big splashes.
Getting that kind of bang for their buck and winning, of course, are necessities for the Reds, said Jeff McDonald, public relations director for Cincinnati ticket broker Riverfront Choice Tickets.
“There’s some positives in the moves they made, but in a small market, it really becomes a wait-and-see game,” McDonald told TicketNews. “In baseball you have those April and May games where the weather is iffy and there’s a propensity for consumers to wait. If they go say 11-0 out of the gate, then we’ve got something here.”
The Reds average ticket price of $20.56 was 19th among the 30 MLB teams last year.
“You need the weather and you need the winning,” McDonald said. “A small market like us really benefits from a huge primary market sale. We’re also a very conservative market here. When it comes to belt-tightening, dropping season tickets is usually one of the first moves.”
McDonald recalled that the tight-fisted days of former owner Marge Schott in the ’90s lessened the Reds’ reach in the outlying market. Drawing from surrounding areas had been a hallmark of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” heyday.
“From a fan perspective, we’re very contingent on people coming in within a 2- to 3-hour drive,” McDonald said. “Back in the 70s, in the days of the Big Red Machine, we had that. It reached all the way into Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and upstate Ohio. The Marge Schott days did away with marketing, and it kind of did away with that reach.”
McDonald said competition from other major league teams as well as relatively new minor league ballparks in Dayton, OH; Lexington, KY; and Indianapolis, IN, has also helped dilute the Reds’ market.
“You’ve had the [Cleveland] Indians and even the [Pittsburgh] Pirates grab some of that market share and the Cardinals have always done well drawing from throughout the Midwest.”
Adding to the list of concerns is the lack of blockbuster home games scheduled for the Reds’ 2012 season. Cross-state rivals the Cleveland Indians are coming to Cincinnati, but these games are all scheduled for week days. Besides the Indians, the only other American League teams coming into Cincinnati are the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers.
“We’re very reliant on a good schedule,” McDonald said. “We didn’t get that good schedule this year. It could be very tough to overcome that. You need to have 20-30 games that are great schedule-wise. This year you might have 11.”