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Milton, 14-6 in 2004, leaves big fish hanging

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."