I was part of a debate the other night with some friends on what Joey Votto’s future with the Reds should look like. Strong cases were made for each of the three broad visions. The positions say something about baseball strategy, the Reds’ rebuild, and a player’s value, so I think they serve as a kind of Rorschach test for Reds fans. Here, as best as I can distill them, are the three cases. Let RLN know which one seems the closest to right to you, and why.
Position 1: Dump Votto’s Contract
It was just never right. The Reds’ ownership let themselves get swept up in the excitement of having a good team, and an MVP, and they thought the party would never end. They were going to win a World Series and let the baseball gods sort out the rest.
The day that Votto signed a 10-year $225 million dollar extension to his already lucrative deal that had two more years left, Big Bob said “Is it risky? No doubt. That’s the environment we live in, especially as a small market.” He knew it was a huge gamble with the club’s future, but he rolled the dice anyway. We’re gonna live forever!
The play was to mortgage the Reds future for the hopes of a title or two during the Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman window. It could have happened in 2012 but didn’t, and now we’re left with the downside. For a team with a payroll that’s usually in the $85-$105 million range, paying any one player $25 million is always going to cause problems.
But the percentage of total payroll is just the start of the issue. The real problems are that we are wasting Votto’s prime, when his contract is at least reasonable, and who knows what Votto will be playing like by the time the Reds are ready to compete again. His defense has become terrible, and while he’ll probably always get on base, his power is likely to decline significantly as he ages. And he’s not an elite power hitter as it is.
It’s possible that the Reds will be paying 20% of their total salary to a one dimensional player, at just the time that they could use that money to huge effect, either by making a trade and taking on a salary, or by signing a key piece-of-the-puzzle free agent.
Votto has had such an insane second half, if the Reds put him on waivers, he might not clear. A big market team in contention could take on his salary, and if he’s not worth it in a few years, write it off. Votto has a full no-trade clause, but he can’t block being waived, and the most important thing is to take this opportunity and get out from under a bad decision before it haunts the team throughout the rebuild. They may never have another shot at a do-over.
Position 2: Trade Votto to Toronto
Could the Reds have done something different with their payroll since 2012? Sure. But why would they have? As many have pointed out, if anything, Joey Votto is undervalued. In the three healthy years that Votto has had since signing his extension, he’s put up 5.9, 6.6, and 7.6 bWAR. You can debate what that would be worth on the open market to some extent, but a conservative estimate would say that each of those years was worth between $30 and $40 million on the open market, if not more.
The problem isn’t the deal, the problem is the timing of the deal. The Reds front office mismanaged the team, plain and simple. They had a lot of good talent, but they emptied the farm system to try to keep the 2010-2012 team going as long as possible, and that stopped the flow of young talent. That’s the same playbook bad front offices have been using forever, and it leads to one thing: a full-on rebuild.
Because the Reds are in the middle of a full rebuild, they are basically squandering Joey Votto’s prime. Yes, he’s amazing to watch. Yes, the second half of 2016 has been fun, and it can make one hopeful. But in reality, it takes a while to build a serious World Series contender. A recent RLN piece made the comparison between the 2009 team and this year’s 2016 vintage. I think that’s a little optimistic, but even if it’s true, the Reds weren’t a serious contender until 2012. So if the Reds are on a similar path, we could be looking at 2019 and beyond for the next great Reds team.
Joey Votto is 32 now, soon to be 33. In 2019 he’ll be playing his age 35-36 season, and he may still be very good. I think that’s the most likely thing, given that he actively thinks about shaping his skills to age well more than any other player I’ve ever heard about. But 35 is not 28. Votto is very likely to be better in the next 2 years than he will be in the years after that.
Votto’s hometown Blue Jays are currently tied with the Red Sox atop the AL East, a solid 15 games over .500. Their two longtime stars, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, are both going to be free agents after this year, and it’s unlikely that the Jays can hang onto either of them, let alone both. It’s also safe to say that no single player would be as popular if traded to Toronto as Joey Votto would be. This is what they call stars aligning.
Votto would help the Jays immediately, potentially even bring them a World Series. With Votto in the fold, the loss of two big bats wouldn’t hurt so bad, and would allow the Jays to spend their money on players without panicking. Votto has a full no-trade clause, but it’s hard to imagine him declining a chance to play at home, for a team built to win now.
From the Reds perspective, they could get a package of prospects from Toronto that would join the young talent already in the system. This would increase the Reds’ chances of getting a good group of players all up at the same time. It would also free up resources to spend on players once the new-look Reds are really coming together, and the holes can be identified.
Losing Votto and Jay Bruce in the same year would be heartbreaking, but this is about as perfect a win-win as once can imagine, and if the package of prospects offered were good, I think you have to trade him.
Position 3: Don’t Trade Votto
Talking about trading Joey Votto is crazy. It would be like buying a lottery ticket, winning, and then trading that winning ticket for more lottery tickets instead of taking the money. Joey Votto is the most valuable asset the Reds have, by far, bar none, and you don’t let those slip away.
First off, the Reds have money. They could have spent more this year on players, but why bother? It wouldn’t have made a difference, so they saved it. The idea of losing your best player, to save money, when you aren’t spending the money you already have, makes no sense. Revenues are up all over the sport, and by the time the next good Reds team comes alone (which could be as soon as next year) the Reds can crank up the spending again.
Second, as much as Votto is loved by the numbers folks, the real reason to keep Votto through his entire contract is something the stats guys usually hate: the intangibles. Votto is the consummate student of the game. Yes he has talent, but more than any other player I’ve seen, he gets the most out of his talent because he studies the game, and he works hard at it. That is the type of player I want all of the new, younger Reds to be around.
Just this year, Votto took Billy Hamilton under his wing. Now Hamilton is starting to look like the player we all wished he could be. Not only will Votto be playing well for the next good Reds team, he will help make the next good Reds team great by showing all the young players exactly how to get the most out of their talent.
And call me sentimental, but I want Votto to go into Cooperstown as a career Red. Having guys like that adds to the storied history of the franchise, and makes me more proud to be a Reds fan. He’s a great player, he’s worth every penny and more, and in the end he will go down as one of the greatest Reds position players of all time. How can you let that go for a couple of minor league guys that you don’t know and some money you don’t need?