Votto's mammoth deal is shock to system
Whoa.I think that's the collective first reaction to the reports -- as yet unconfirmed -- that the Cincinnati Reds have signed their star first baseman Joey Votto to a long, long, long-term extension. USA Today reported Monday that the Votto extension is for 10 years and $225 million, and remember that's in addition to the two years and $26.5 million remaining on his current contract. And the deal also reportedly includes trade protection. If the reports prove true, then Votto has agreed to the fourth-largest contract in Major League history and the third $200 million deal signed by a first baseman in the last four months. Once Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got paid, it stood to reason that Votto would be next in line for such a guarantee. But conventional wisdom told us Votto's pay day wouldn't come until 2013. And certainly not in Cincinnati. That's what makes this such a shock to the system. And once you shake off the shock, you look at it from two perspectives from two disparate body parts: The heart is warmed by a star locked up for the long haul by a small-market club, while the head says the Reds overpaid. Let's start with the heart. The Reds drafted Votto a decade ago. He was an 18-year-old Canadian prep star, the club's third selection in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, behind (and please hold your applause until all names are mentioned) Chris Gruler and Mark Schramek. Though nobody doubted his ability to reach the big leagues, Votto wasn't one of those highly touted prospects for whom greatness was predicted. In fact, he struggled at the advanced Class A level in his 21-year-old season, hardly a harbinger of things to come. But after a couple of solid seasons at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, Votto first reached the bigs in 2007 and made it up to stay in 2008. His development in the time since is nothing short of staggering, as he's shown power to all fields without sacrificing his contact rates and on-base ability. His triple-slash line over the last three seasons is .318/.418/.565 with a ballpark-adjusted OPS of 161. Just silly, silly stuff. And every indication was that Votto, assuming he got through the next two seasons healthy and without a drastic dip in performance, would cash in on that stuff in a bigger market. The Reds might be the only home he's known in professional ball, but -- let's face it -- they've never drawn three million fans to Great American Ball Park. And just for the sake of conversation, the most updated radio market rankings list them 22nd among Major League cities, just behind Pittsburgh and just ahead of Cleveland. These are not the kind of places where the biggest stars stay. So, yeah, it only stood to reason that Votto would find paycheck prominence elsewhere. That point seemed assured the winter before the 2011 season, when, instead of giving up any of his free-agent years, Votto signed a three-year, $38 million contract that only bought out his arbitration eligibility. And the point was really hammered home when the Pujols and Fielder contracts came through. The Reds got aggressive this winter, perceivably because they wanted to maximize their window of opportunity with Votto still in tow. Then came this stunner, and it's truly an exciting one for the Reds and their fans. All those rumors and rumblings about Votto eventually going home to Canada to play for the Blue Jays or becoming the first free-agent foray for the Dodgers' new ownership group? Well, they can effectively be put to rest, because Votto's going to be as much a Queen City fixture as Skyline chili, LaRosa's pizza, Montgomery Inn ribs and Graeter's ice cream. (Note: I don't recommend consuming all four of those foods in a single sitting.) But did the Reds go too far with this deal? Well, it's hard not to argue in the affirmative. Let's state the obvious: For a National League club to make a 12-year commitment to a position player who will be 40 at the conclusion of the deal is a major, major gamble. (That said, for all we know, the NL will be utilizing the designated hitter by the time this deal is done. It's so far into the future that none of us can really forecast what the baseball world will look like in 2023, let alone what a 39-year-old Votto will be bringing to the table.) The average annual value for Votto over the next dozen years works out to $20.96 million per year. For about half of those years, the Reds can expect a fruitful return on that investment -- provided, of course, that Votto stays healthy and that aforementioned three-year slash line remains his norm. It is, naturally, the latter half of the deal that is fraught with albatross potential, and we know too well how small-market clubs can have their hands tied when a single player accounts for, say, 25-30 percent of their total payroll. Already, we know that this deal makes it appear less likely that the Reds will retain Brandon Phillips beyond this free-agent walk year (but then again, maybe they have another surprise up their sleeve). The Reds are clearly banking on the belief that their ability to retain a "hometown" hero will inspire increased attendance and, perhaps more to the point, robust TV revenue. But the timing of the agreement is indeed interesting, given that the Reds still had two years of control of Votto. For the sake of comparison, the Dodgers just locked up an MVP-type talent in Matt Kemp, who plays a premier position in center field and was one year away from free agency, at a comparatively bargain rate of eight years, $160 million. In the end, though, it's all about contractual comparables, and Votto had two angels (well, actually, one Angel and one Tiger) at his side. But unlike Pujols and Fielder, he's staying put with the club that drafted and developed him. And it's a pre-Opening Day development that warms the heart, boggles the mind and shocks the system.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.