Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Defense of: The Joey Votto Extension

First baseman Joey Votto recently received an massive contract extension that will pay him $225 million through the 2023 season.

Votto's extension has received considerable criticism from some analysts.

NBC Sports' Matthew Pouliot wrote:
It’s an incredible commitment and a giant risk, given the number of years involved. Votto is one of the game’s best players now, but there’s no telling whether he will be five or eight years down the road...Yet there’s certainly little reason to think he’ll be anything close to a $20 million-$23 million player from age 34 on.'s Keith Law commented:
The Reds already had Votto under contract for 2012 and 2013 at well-below-market salaries, so the extension won't begin in earnest until his age-30 season, by which point Votto will most likely have already peaked, meaning he'll spend virtually the entire extension declining from his peak. Granted, that peak -- about seven wins above replacement a year, per FanGraphs -- is extremely high, meaning Votto likely will still be a valuable player for the next four or five years, but he's also a slow-footed first baseman, one of the worst-aging categories of players. His value likely will drop by half before the extension is halfway through, perhaps sooner given the propensity of position players to miss more time due to injuries in their 30s.
It seems as if the main criticisms of the extension are:

1. They didn't have to offer this deal now since Votto still had two years before becoming a free agent

2. He is unlikely to maintain his current levels of production in the final years of the contract, and will therefore be overpaid.

No matter your opinion of the contracts recently signed by Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, they did effectively set the market value for power hitting first basemen. 

You could argue that since Votto was still under contract for the next two seasons, that he shouldn't have been able to command the same amount of money.  On the other hand, a player's contract demands typically increase the closer they get to free agency.  If Votto did hit the open market in two years, the Pujols and Fielder deals likely would have been treated as starting points by his agent. 

There is another benefit to signing Votto to an early extension.  The Reds expect to be contenders for the next couple of seasons.  They probably felt that having Votto's impending free agency looming over the club was a distraction that they didn't need.  While it worked out well for the Cardinals last year, I'm guessing that given the choice, most teams would prefer to avoid such distractions.

As far as the length of the contract, once again, we have to refer to the Pujols and Fielder deals as guidelines.  Teams are willing to give these players long-term deals which means they will pay them large amounts of money for seasons in which they are theoretically going to be in decline.

If the Reds could have signed Votto to a shorter deal, maybe they would have done so.  But there is no evidence that leads us to believe that was an option.

The only other choices the Reds had were to either let Votto leave as a free agent or to trade him away before free agency.

While these moves might have relieved the Reds of some salary burden towards the end of the decade, it would have done nothing to improve their chances on the field.

You could point to Votto's expected WAR in the final seasons of the deal, and say that you can find replacements at a much lower price.

But is it really that simple?

It is extremely difficult to let your star players leave, replace them with inexpensive players from the minors and continue to contend.  The Tampa Bay Rays are just about the only team who has been able to pull that off, and that is due to having one of the most fertile farm systems in baseball.

If Votto does decline during the latter part of the contract, will his contract be a huge burden on the team's payroll and their ability to contend?  Yes.  But if they got rid of him and the players they brought in to replace him didn't match his numbers, that might be an even greater burden.

Not only would have the team lost the production that Votto provided, but it would have also been a major blow to the team's fans.  It's extremely depressing to be a fan of a team who basically says that they can't afford to keep their top players, and that no matter how good a player is, he's eventually going to leave for a large payroll team.

By ensuring Votto will be with the team for the long haul, it sends an important message to the team and the fan base.  They are declaring that they are willing to make the necessary financial commitment to keep one of the franchise's great players.

The Reds have essentially wagered that their star will continue to play well and be worth the money down the line.  In my opinion, that's a pretty good bet to make.

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