Joey Votto just signed/is about to sign one of the largest contracts ever. Certainly, it is the largest contract ever offered by what can universally be called a small-market team. The repercussions are far-reaching. Many others have already addressed the issue of value, so I’m not going to talk about whether this is a fair or good contract.
Rather, I am going ask how this affects the Reds in the medium-future. Until recently, there was talk in Cincinnati of the “Votto Window.” That is, the next two years, after which Votto would presumably leave for a pile of money. Obviously, this is no longer the issue. Now, the question is how the will Reds compete after 2013 when Votto’s new extension kicks in and he starts making an enormous amount of money.
Whether the Reds can remain competitive into the middle of the decade will depend largely upon a core of young players. Right now, the Reds have no fewer than 12 significant players on the roster locked up through at least the 2015 season. And these aren’t scrubs, either. They are:
What this boils down to is that the Reds have five of eight lineup spots spoken for, three of five rotations spots (four if Chapman starts), a relief ace, and two solid utility guys who might have a few decent seasons as starters.
But 12 players does not make a team, and there are several among these 12 who are less than sure bets, so who do the Reds emphatically not need to worry about?
Joey Votto—When Votto is 40, he almost certainly won’t be a good baseball player, but he is 28 now and should still be excellent for at least the next four or five years. Locking him in place made certain the Reds will have at least one truly special player on the roster for the foreseeable future.
Jay Bruce—Bruce hasn’t materialized into the superstar everyone hoped for, but he has been a very good major league player. This spring he is a popular pick to break out. We’ll see. Even if he doesn’t break out, he is still very young (this is his age-25 season) and like Votto, there’s no reason to worry about him falling apart any time soon.
Mat Latos—We could argue, I guess, that you can never call a pitcher a safe bet given how often they get hurt, but Latos is young and good and as safe a bet as anyone. There have been no red flags yet. The Reds have to hope that continues to be the case.
Mike Leake—A world beater he is not. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be in the Cy Young conversation, but he is a solid mid-rotation pitcher and has gotten through two seasons healthy. This should be the year the training wheels come off and Leake is allowed to pitch every fifth day without running into innings limits.
Sean Marshall—He’s been great for several years now and, as a relief pitcher and he isn’t going to throw a ton of innings. No reason to worry until he gives us one.
Only five of 12 players are safe bets? Yes. A few more players aren’t sure things, but neither are they particularly concerning. They are:
Johnny Cueto—He seems to get a little injury or two every year. Last year, there were some minor shoulder issues. They could be nothing, but shoulder issues are always scary. Encouragingly, Cueto has shown steady improvement each year (though it’s foolish to expect anything like last year’s 2.32 ERA again).
Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco—I’m listing these two together because the concerns with them are the same. They are rookies. Pretty much everyone seems to think they’ll do well (I’ve seen each predicted to win Rookie of the Year), but you never know with rookies. A solid 2012 would put them both in the “don’t worry” category.
Now we are to the big question marks. All these players should raise red flags for Cincinnati.
Drew Stubbs—Stubbs had an off year last year and he’s already 27. Much of his value comes from his speed, and speed is often one of the first things to go. A Stubbs who suddenly can’t play center or steal bases also doesn’t hit with enough power or get on base enough to be a good player. He must be watched closely for any sign of decline.
Aroldis Chapman—To this point, the only word to describe the Reds’ handling of Chapman is incompetent. They need to figure out a plan for him (he should start), stick with it, and let him develop. It seems they might finally do that in 2012, though he’ll start the year in the bullpen. Until we have more information, it’s impossible to assess the injury risk here or figure out a realistic ceiling for Chapman.
Todd Frazier and Chris Heisey—Both are solid players who are older than many fans think (Frazier is 26 and Heisey is 27). Either can probably hold down a starting job for a year or two, but they shouldn’t be counted on beyond that as they are already in their peak years and have shown no signs of being better than they are right now.
Even if there are some question marks, the Reds are in good shape with the talent they have locked up. However, the Votto contract means they are unlikely to have much money to spend on the free agent market. This means they will have to fill their holes via the farm and trades. And there are holes. Over the next several years, the Reds will need starters at second base (I am assuming Brandon Phillips does not sign an extension), third base, and one or two outfield positions, as well as one or two starting pitchers.
That’s not nothing, but it’s not bad. The Reds currently have at least one very solid pitching prospect in Daniel Corcino. He has been favorably compared to Cueto and many people would be surprised if he didn’t develop into at least a fourth starter in the next few years. Top draft pick Robert Stephenson is highly regarded as well. The Reds also have several solid, if still raw, prospects in the middle infield—Billy Hamilton and Didi Gregorius.
The outfield situation is less promising and is where the Reds need to focus their attention. Bruce is literally the only outfielder in the organization who can be counted on to produce over the next three to four years. Not long ago, the outfield was an organizational strength, but trades have depleted it, and barring very cagey and fortuitous drafting, the Reds will need to make some trades to restock it.
With the signing of Votto, the Reds have made clear their desire to be competitive for years to come. However, a big contract like this one can create as many problems as it solves. In the coming years, the fate of the Reds will be decided as much by how they manage their limited resources as how Votto and the other players already in place perform.