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Reds Buy Out Votto

Joey Votto‘s monster 2010 (.324/.424/.600, .439 wOBA) came just in time for his first season of arbitration eligibility. That won’t be a concern now, as the Votto has reportedly signed a three-year, $38 million contract with the Reds, buying out his arbitration seasons. While Votto is obviously a great player, that number might seem steep to some for a player still under team control. However, a closer look shows that the Reds are getting a very good deal.

As has been mentioned before, in their arbitration years players usually get 40, 60, and 80 percent of what their value would be on the open market. The easiest way to calculate this is to apply this to length of the contract. Rather than three years, we value the contract as 1.8 years. Assuming a current market of about $5 million per win above replacement (WAR), and an expected annual increase of between five and ten percent, the Reds are paying Votto as if he is around a four WAR player.

To get an idea of Votto’s estimated offensive true talent for 2011 (i.e., projections), I have looked at three systems and converted their projected lines to a wOBA and custom linear weights based on the 2010 run environment (as found here) for consistency. “Runs” are runs above average per 700 plate appearances.

ZiPS: .301/.396/.540, .407 wOBA, +49 runs

CAIRO: .297/.388/.395, .535 wOBA, +42 runs

My (as-yet-unnamed) projection system: .308/.403/.554, .405 wOBA, +48 runs

Without adjusting for park or league, CAIRO projects Votto to have the second-highest wOBA to Albert Pujols, and my projections have Votto’s 2011 wOBA as the highest in baseball (the full ZiPS projections are not available yet). Whomever you think the best is (once parks are accounted for, Pujols would probably come out on top; my personal [subjective] opinion is that Pujols is still better, but the fact that I’m even making the comparison…), the point is simply that Votto can hit. Big revelation there. Looking at the average and adjusting slightly for Cincinnati’s hitter-friendly run environment, let’s call Votto roughly a +45/700 hitter.

In the field, while Votto had a big 2008 according to most systems, he’s been pretty close to average (a bit above overall), and that’s how the Fans see him. Some between average and five runs above seems like a fair estimate.

Bringing it all together: +45 offense + (zero to five) runs fielding, -12.5 positional adjustment + 20 replacement level = 53 to 58 RAR times 90 percent (about 150 games) playing time = between 48 and 53 runs above replacement. Five wins seems like a good projection for Votto’s current true talent. Given that the Reds are paying him as if he’s more like four, they are getting a very good deal. The average annual value of almost $13 million might be a bit more than they would pay in the first arbitration (although Ryan Howard got $10 million three years ago), but it probably saves them money in the second and third years and thus overall.

While Votto could probably have been able to get more money overall by going to arbitration each season, by signing for three years gets security by getting guaranteed money for the next three seasons in case he gets hurt or his performance dramatically falls off for some other reason. At 27, he’s probably at the peak of his powers, but that also means he’s also unlikely to be any better than he is right now. Moreover, unlike some recent players (including teammate Jay Bruce), Votto didn’t give up any of his free agent years. He’ll be 30 going into his first year of free agency, which isn’t young in baseball terms, but still gives him a decent chance for at least one more big payday.

All things considered, while the Reds are winners from a money standpoint, this is a relatively fair deal for both sides. Votto gets guaranteed money and security without giving up future years of free agency. The Reds get one of the best hitters in baseball in the prime of his career at a price they couldn’t get on the free market. In Votto and Bruce, they have a first base and outfield combination that is closer in talent than one might think to the Albert Pujols-Matt Holliday pair in St. Louis, and is also younger and cheaper.