On November 22, 1978, former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John signed a free agent contract with the New York Yankees, declining an offer to become the first Cincinnati Reds free agent signee.
The Reds had lost pitcher Don Gullett to the Yankees the previous season and had hoped that John would take a lefty spot in the Reds rotation. At the time, John was three years removed from the famous elbow surgery that prolonged his career. He had 47-24 with 3.05 ERA (118 ERA+) in the three seasons since his surgery. He would proceed to go 21-9 and 22-9 in the next two seasons for the Yankees and would pitch another eleven seasons before retiring. Overall, John pitched in 26 major league seasons, going 288-231 with a 3.34 ERA.
John wasn’t the only major league player to decline a free agent contract with the Reds in the 1978 postseason. The Reds’ Pete Rose had filed for free agency following the 1978 season himself and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on December 5. The Reds decided to pursue Dodger utility player Lee Lacy who was coming off his best major league season having batted .261 with 13 homers and 16 doubles in 103 games (276 plate appearances, 136 OPS+ for perspective). During 1978, Lacy had played 2b-3b-ss-LF-RF and had played centerfield in previous seasons. Lacy, too, spurned the Reds, choosing instead to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates in January, 1979. Lacy was a late bloomer as a hitter and played nine more productive seasons, hitting .295 wiht 62 homers, 112 OPS+) over those seasons.
The Reds didn’t sign a free agent until pinch hitter Larry Biittner signed with the Reds in January, 1981. Biittner played two seasons for the Reds, batting .282 with two homers in 139 games (274 plate appearances, 101 OPS+). Biittner was released by the Reds following the 1982 season. He had hit .310 in 1982 after batting .213 in 1981.
The Reds’ first major free agent signee was outfielder Dave Parker, who signed with the Reds in December, 1983. Parker played four years for the Reds, batting .281 with 107 homers and 432 rbi. Parker finished second in MVP voting in 1985 and fifth in 1986. In 1985, Parker batted .312 with 34 home runs and led the league with 125 rbi and 42 doubles.