Yesterday, Joey Votto signed a ten year extension with the Cincinnati Reds worth $215M. This deal, which comes in addition to the 2 year/$26M contract Votto signed last off-season, will keep the talented 27 year old first basemen with the Reds through 2023. Following an off-season that saw Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols signed to long term deals, the Votto contract further highlights the premium price teams are willing to pay for elite slugging first basemen. In light of this, Adrian Gonzalez’s 7 year, $154M deal with the Boston Red Sox might be one of the game’s best bargains.
Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in the game and it is not surprising that the Reds are willing pay top dollar to keep him around. He is the type of player that you can build a contending team around. While you even make the argument that Votto is the best first baseman in the game, this deal is clearly excessive. The Cincinnati Reds will be paying Votto an average annual value around $20M through his age 39 season, an age when even the best players are rarely ever able to produce at an above average level.
Viewed in the context of this off-season, the deal is not particularly shocking. Albert Pujols, who has been the most valuable player in baseball for almost a decade, received a 10 year/$240M contract from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this January. Shortly after, Prince Fielder got a 9 year/ $213M deal from the Detroit Tigers. Votto is younger than Pujols and superior to Fielder both at the plate and in the field. He is, therefore, perhaps the best bet of the three to reach the level of production necessary to justify a deal of this size. However, between the number of years involved and the overall dollar value, all three of these deals are extremely risky.
Boston Red Sox will receive extremely comparable production from Adrian Gonzalez at a nearly 30% discount and avoid paying Gonzalez for in his decline years. Gonzalez is just over a year older than Votto and has produced very similar value over the past three seasons. Looking at wRC+, a more accurately weighted version of OPS+, Joey Votto has been the second best hitter in baseball, behind Albert Pujols over the past three seasons, with a wRC+ of 163. Gonzalez comes in seventh by that measure, just behind Prince Fielder, with a wRC+ of 151. Using this metric, it’s fair to say that Votto has been about 13% better at producing runs than Gonzalez, a significant advantage. However, while Votto is no slouch with the glove, Gonzalez is clearly the better defender. By the Fangraph’s system, which is based on UZR, Gonzalez has saved 17.7 runs with his glove while Votto has saved just 7.8. Total Zone sees the difference in their defense as even greater. Overall, the difference in three years time between Gonzalez and Votto has been less than 1 win above replacement (fWAR).
At the back end of both deals, Votto and Gonzalez will have the same average annual salary, $21.5M. That is hardly an overpay for either player at their current levels of production. The major difference is that Gonzalez’s final year will come at the age of 36 while Votto’s will come at the age of 39. In the entire history of the game, there have been just 50 examples over players producing 5 or more wins at 36 to 39 years old. Of those 50 seasons, 16 belong to the four of the greatest players ever Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Ted Williams. Almost ever player to produce at that level after age 36 is a Hall of Famer or likely to be induced as one.
While Joey Votto has been extremely good thus far in his career, he is not a likely hall of famer. In five seasons, he has amassed 29 points in Bill James’ Hall of Fame monitor system. Should he play out his entire contract at the same level of production, he would still be just short of the 100 points that equals the average Hall of Famer in James’ system. That is not to say that he will not outperform these rough estimates, but just to highlight how unlikely it is that Votto will remain even close to his current value by the end of his new contract.
On the basis of current production, I would probably take Albert Pujols or Joey Votto over Adrian Gonzalez. They have been better hitters over the past few seasons and while Gonzalez might be the best defender of the group, all three are well above average in the field. However, when you consider the lengths of their contracts and the almost certain decline in performance that will come at the back end, Adrian Gonzalez’s 7 year/$154M is easily the best deal as the Boston Red Sox will avoid paying their first baseman for his last waning years.