CINCINNATI -- Monday came and went without word of a finalized contract signing between the Reds and pitcher Johnny Cueto. But assuming reports last week of a four-year, $27 million agreement are correct, Cincinnati has not been afraid to open the vault to retain the players it values. A message was left for Reds general manager Walt Jocketty on Monday, but Cueto has yet to come to town for the physical that would be required before any deal can be made formal. A Cueto signing for that amount would mean that the Reds have committed a combined $151 million this winter toward contracts for four key players -- Bronson Arroyo (three years, $35 million), Jay Bruce (six years, $51 million), Joey Votto (three years, $38 million) and Cueto.
Obviously all four players receive a nice amount of security while the Reds now have some cost or budget certainty regarding them. But it also signals to the league and Reds fans that the small-market club, and defending National League Central champions, is trying to keep its window of competitive opportunity open for as long as possible. With the exception of Arroyo, these players are under 30, were arbitration-eligible and have yet to reach the prime of their careers. Cincinnati also has control over young emerging stars like Edinson Volquez, who would be the lone arbitration-eligible player left to sign after Cueto. Volquez is still under club control through the 2013 season unless he is signed to a larger deal this winter. Center fielder Drew Stubbs and pitcher Aroldis Chapman are other important players locked into place. Stubbs has yet to reach his arbitration years, while Chapman is starting the second year of a six-year, $30.25 million contract. Among other small-market clubs, the Twins have stood out the past decade for staying competitive as they rely heavily on their farm system while also locking up members of their young core for multi-year deals. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau are locked in and, earlier on, so were Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. The Twins have won six American League Central titles in the last nine seasons. A native of Minnesota, Jocketty has not hidden his desire for the Reds to duplicate that type of blueprint for success. Of course, there is a hitch to this plan, and it's that hard choices must be made at some point. Many of the players the Twins signed to multi-year deals didn't get a second contract when they reached or approached their free-agent years. Minnesota chose to let Hunter walk as a free agent to the Angels and traded Santana to the Mets for prospects. Other times, popular players were not chosen for long-term commitments because there simply wasn't enough money and/or there was a cheaper, but prized, prospect waiting in the wings to take the spot. There's doubt that the Reds will have to make similar choices and could have to let popular players move along. It already happened to a lesser degree this winter when the club held firm against giving 41-year-old lefty Arthur Rhodes a two-year contract. It also held the line on spending $4 million to pick up shortstop Orlando Cabrera's option. Small-market teams have little room for error when they do allocate money on younger, less-proven players like Bruce or Cueto -- unlike the Yankees or Red Sox. Based on one decent 17-win season in 2001, Minnesota gave Joe Mays a four-year, $20 million contract in 2002, and it proved to be a bust when Mays blew out his elbow and never had another good year. That sometimes hamstrung the club from making moves to improve itself later on. The Reds, with a projected payroll of around $80 million this season, could have their next really big decision awaiting them next winter as two-time Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips will have completed his four-year, $27 million contract. There is a $12 million club option for 2012 that carries a $1 million buyout. While no one would question Phillips' talent or his resume to date, second baseman Chris Valaika is a younger and cheaper prospect that will be waiting in the wings -- either on the Reds' bench or at Triple-A Louisville. A whole season of baseball remains before that type of issue comes to pass. In the meantime, Reds fans should enjoy the outcome of the deals already made, as it improves their chances to become a NL Central perennial contender.