Joey Votto started his big league career with a bang — literally. In his first four, full seasons, he hit 116 home runs and was a consistent .300-plus hitter. As young player, he was viewed as the kind of cornerstone the Cincinnati Reds could build around for years to come, so they did what teams do — they signed him to an big money, obscenely long contract that ensures he’ll be dead weight when he can barely swing or adequately play his position (1B) in his late 30s.
This season, at age 31, Votto will enter the second year of a 10-year, $225 million pact that goes through 2023(!) when he’s 40. And — uh-oh — he’s already showing signs of breaking down. He played 62 games last season due to a knee injury, which had a huge effect on his power (six HR) and batting average (.255).
So the Reds are saddled with this albatross of the contract, and the mid-market team with a projected $116 million budget now has to make tough choices. They probably can’t afford to keep ace Johnny Cueto, who won 20 games and will hit free agency after this season at age 29 (you know he’s going for, at minimum, a Jon Lester-type contract). Aroldis Chapman, the best reliever in baseball, is two years away from free agency, and he’s going to shatter the $46 million David Robertson got from the White Sox. Heck, the Reds might not even be able to keep him through his two remaining arbitration years. They did sign Devin Mesoraco to a four-year, $28 million extension, a smart, potentially well below-market deal with a 26-year-old coming into his own. Bu that’s the financial league in which the Reds are going to have to play, and you don’t get a lot of impact for those sorts of dollars anymore.
Not only will the Reds have a hard time keeping their own players, it’ll be equally hard shopping for bargain-bin free agents. Even the Gordon Beckham’s of the world cost $2 million. That’s pocket change for the Dodgers but fillet for the Reds. Trade Votto? Nah, not unless the Reds will take back an equally wretched contract, and there aren’t that many this bad (Prince Fielder’s $214 million deal expires after the 2020 season. That contract is so bad the Yankees might not even send them A-Rod, which says a ton right there.)
Votto, when healthy, is a terrific player, no doubt. He still have a few really good years left before the inevitable decline happens. The issue isn’t the production — it’s how such a huge contract for a mid-market team will destroy financial flexibility for years to come.