In giving Joey Votto what we are reporting is a 10-year, $225 million extension, the Reds make what I can only assume is a panic signing, a full year and a half before free agency. It's an extension they almost certainly will regret before it reaches its halfway point.
The Votto extension follows on the heels of two other massive deals handed out to first basemen -- deals that commit to players deep into their 30s -- but while three wrongs might make a trend, it doesn't make the philosophy sane. The Albert Pujols (Angels) and Prince Fielder (Tigers) deals didn't actually make sense, but at least they were signed by large-payroll clubs playing in large markets. Votto's 10-year contract might look good for the next four or five seasons, but the back half of this deal threatens to be an albatross around the neck of a low-payroll team in a market that might generously be called middle of the pack.
The Reds already had Votto under contract for 2012 and 2013 at well-below-market salaries, so the extension won't begin in earnest until his age-30 season, by which point Votto will most likely have already peaked, meaning he'll spend virtually the entire extension declining from his peak. Granted, that peak -- about seven wins above replacement a year, per FanGraphs -- is extremely high, meaning Votto likely will still be a valuable player for the next four or five years, but he's also a slow-footed first baseman, one of the worst-aging categories of players. His value likely will drop by half before the extension is halfway through, perhaps sooner given the propensity of position players to miss more time due to injuries in their 30s.
The Reds' payroll last year was just more than $80 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, so while we'd expect that to rise with industry inflation, Votto is likely to account for roughly 20 percent of the team's payroll once the extension kicks in, while providing ever-declining value on the field. The Cincinnati farm system is only middle of the road and after Devon Mesoraco has a gap before the next likely impact player arrives, meaning the Reds' window to win is probably now and 2013 but could start to close quickly after that.
I actually like Votto's chances to minimize the albatross years more than Fielder's or Pujols' chances, but that doesn't mean this deal makes any sense for the Reds. The history of deals this long is ugly. The history of corner position players playing into their mid- to late 30s is ugly. And the team isn't likely to ever run a payroll so high that carrying Votto while he's returning 50 cents on the dollar isn't a big deal.