Heard this: over the weekend, Buster Olney tweeted: “Rival executives getting signals that the Reds won’t shop Joey Votto — but that they are fully prepared to listen to offers.” While the tweet does not come close to saying that Votto was up for grabs (“they’re willing to listen, I’ve never heard that before!”), it generated a substantial amount of buzz across the internet. Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball and he is in his prime (he just turned 28). Earlier this season, Dave Cameron ranked Votto seventh in his most recent installment of his annual trade value rankings. What sort of return can the Reds expect if they trade Votto during the coming off-season?
In case you have been living under a rock, Votto followed up his 2010 National League Most Valuable Player campaign with a 2011 that was almost as good. It was his third season in an row with a wOBA over .400 (career .408). Over the last three seasons, Votto has been the third most valuable position player in baseball according to Wins Above Replacement. The only hitters with a better wRC+ over that period are Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. In short, Votto is an amazing talent.
For trade purposes, we are interested less in what Votto has already done and more in what he is likely to do in the near future, his true talent. As a hitter, Votto has an impressive combination of skills. He has impressive power to all fields. Unlike many sluggers, he keeps his strikeout rate at about league average. However, Votto is no hacker, and has had walk rates almost double the league average over the last two seasons. That would be enough to make him a good hitter, but he also manages high BABIPs. While BABIP is subject to more random fluctuation than other components, it is only one part of Votto’s offensive game, and after three years in a row with BABIPs of .349 or higher, his BABIP skill seems to be on the high end. At 28, he is not likely to get any better, but it is not as if he is on the steep part of the decline, either. Oliver’s 2012 forecast for Votto is for a .403 wOBA (.306/.399/.535). That is about 48 runs above average in this run environment.
Votto is generally considered to be a good defensive first baseman by both scouts and metrics, although the spread in talent between the best- and worst-fielding first baseman is not as great as at other positions. He is probably a couple of runs above average in terms of true talent. An aspect worth looking at more closely in Votto’s case is his injury history, or, more properly, his relative lack thereof. Despite various dings and day-to-day issues that most players deal with, the only time that I can find that Votto has ever been in the disabled list was a period in 2009 when he was dealing with depression. Obviously we are aware that this is a serious issue that has to be dealt with properly. However, it is not a physical issue in the same sense as a shoulder or leg injury that might directly effect Votto’s ability to do his job. There are treatments available to deal with it, and, in Votto’s case, he has been able to do his job, and do it quite well. I am not trying to dig into Votto’s personal life, I simply bring this up to point out that 2009 was the only season since Votto has been a full-time major league player that he has played less than 150 games, and even then he played 131. I rarely feel like projecting a player to play 150 or more games going forward, but in Votto’s case, I think it is a fairly safe projection given his age, good physical health, and recent performance.
For those who really want to see the “math”: +48 offense +2 fielding -12.5 first base positional adjustment + 20 NL replacement level all adjusted for 90 percent playing time puts his 2012 projection at a bit over 5.5 wins above replacement. That is outstanding. Votto has two years and $26.5 million remaining on his current contract. With a relatively conservative average cost of a win of about $5.5 million, a small average annual increase of 7%, and a typical rate of attrition, if Votto were to get an “average” deal on the free agent market this off-season lasting only two years, it would be worth about $60 million dollars. That leaves about $35 million dollars worth of surplus value.
[I am leaving aside any potential draft pick compensation for Votto post-2013 since that is something that may very well change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Adjust your expectations up accordingly if you think that will be a factor.]
What does that mean in terms of possible return on prospects? Looking at this summary of Victor Wang’s research from a couple of seasons ago, one finds that $35 million dollars in surplus is approximately the average surplus value of the most coveted sort of prospects — i.e. top-10 hitting prospects. Another way of looking at it that might be more helpful in concrete terms would be to compare the Votto situation to a recent trade that involved high-end prospects. In July 2010, Cliff Lee was traded to by the Mariners to the Rangers with just half a season (at $9 million) left on his contract. There seems to have been a pretty established value for Lee at that point, as the Mariners got back Justin Smoak plus two potentially useful parts, choosing that over a similar offer from the Yankees of Jesus Montero and two possibly helpful pieces.
The point is not whether the Mariners made the right choice, but the established value of half a season of Lee (who was making the same salary in 2010 as Votto will in 2011): top-10 hitting prospect close to the majors plus a couple of decent additions. Votto and Lee are roughly comparable in terms of their on-field value. However, remember that a) a team getting Votto would be getting him for all of 2012 as opposed to just a half-season as in Lee’s case, and at about the same 2012 salary as Lee in 2010; and b) the receiving team would also get him in 2013 at $17 million, which only seems steep if one ignores that Votto will still likely be at least a five-win player — which means at least another $10-$15 million in surplus. Put simply, there is probably at least twice the surplus value available with Votto as there was for Lee, and the Reds should be looking for an appropriate return.
Does that mean the Reds should hold out for, say, two of the top ten hitting hitting prospects in baseball and change for Votto, or a top hitting prospect and top pitching prospect? It would be nice, but that is not likely to happen for several reasons. There simply are not teams that have that kind of talent in their system. Even if they did, teams are more wary than ever of trading away cost-controlled talent for relatively short-term gain. There are very few teams who would be both willing and able to “double” the Smoak and Montero packages, even for an outstanding talent like Votto.
Of course, the Reds do not have to limit themselves to prospects; they could get some help already in the majors. Who that is depends on just what the Reds think their needs are (pitching, anyone?). Perhaps (just as one example) a package of one good major-league player already signed to a team-friendly contract and some prospects might make more sense as a way for the Reds to get value without having to demand two top prospects and change.
Although I have some teams in mind, I do not want to get into speculation, especially since, as noted above, “willing to listen” does not mean much as far as trade rumors go. Instead, I will simply note four conditions that an appropriate trade partner for the Reds on Votto probably needs to meet: 1) the team getting Votto needs to believe they can contend in 2012 and/or 2013 (after which Votto will be a premier free agent); 2) the team needs to have an open spot at first base or the ability to make space there (this is a bit tougher than just bumping a number five starter out of the rotation); 3) the team needs to have very good prospects and/or good players signed to team-friendly contracts that they are willing to move and that they can contend without in 2012 and 2013; 4) the team needs to have space on their projected 2013 payroll for Votto’s $17 million contract.
A number of teams can meet two of those conditions, but finding teams that meet three or four of them gets progressively more difficult. But if the Reds really are doing more than just “listening,” they are still doing the right thing by doing it while Votto is still in his prime with has two big years of surplus value left rather than one. After all, the Reds do not have to trade Votto this off-season. Starting to field offers now not only gives them a potentially greater return, but allows them time (i.e., prior to the next trading deadline or off-season) to sift through different offers to find the best fit for their needs, and also to compare the return and their team situation with what they might get for Yonder Alonso, whose presence is the main reason the Reds might feel better about trading Votto.
The early bird does not always get the worm, but getting up earlier certainly helps. If the Reds had given Votto an extension prior to his 2010 MVP campaign, they would probably be in a better position to keep him beyond 2013 at an affordable price, or at least wait longer to trade him and/or get a larger return. Hindsight is always perfect, of course. In the present, by fielding offers for Votto now (and perhaps comparing them with offers for Alonso at the same time), the Reds give themselves an additional window prior to future trade deadlines and the 2012-2013 off-season to negotiate the difficult task of finding a good match rather than getting into a situation where they end up with a pu-pu platter ([c] Bill Simmons, Honor on the Internet!) for one of the best hitters in the game.
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