- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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OK, I'll admit it: I feel a little guilty writing this post. But sometimes you have to take one for the team and give the readers what they want.
And you readers want to know where Joey Votto ends up when he becomes a free agent after the 2013. (Seriously, you do; I get this question every week during my chat sessions.)
Look, it's unfair to Votto and the Cincinnati Reds to speculate about something that won't happen for two more seasons. But this how front offices operate: They're working two, three and four years down the road at all times. So we'll do the same thing. (Plus ... it's fun, you have to admit.)
So here six teams that could be the top pursuers for Votto in 2013, those teams that have a confluence of a possible opening at first base, some money coming off the books and the ability to afford a player who will likely draw a contract similar to Prince Fielder's. (I don't think necessarily as much as Fielder's $214 million deal. For one thing, Votto will be two years older than Fielder when he hits free agency; and we don't know how much the Tigers may have overbid to sign him.)
First baseman: Anthony Rizzo/Bryan LaHair. Minor league vet LaHair will likely open the season as the starting first baseman with Rizzo receiving more time in Triple-A. Still, Rizzo should win the job for 2013, but that gives him only one full season to prove his 2011 struggles in San Diego were just those of an overeager rookie.
Analysis: Even with Soriano's bloated contract, finances won't be a problem for the Cubs. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer may have inherited a bad club, but at least inherited one without too many bad contracts. The question is how much they'll have in Rizzo; they may need to spend on Votto.
Analysis: Undoubtedly, the new Dodgers owner will want to make a big splash. Will he have the patience to wait a year? Plus, there's the issue that Matt Kemp starts making $20 million in 2013 and Clayton Kershaw will start getting close to that before he's a free agent after 2014. You're talking about the possibility of three $20 million-plus players on one team. But this is the Dodgers and they will soon be owned by a very wealthy individual who will want to pack Dodger Stadium with a winner.
First baseman: Justin Smoak. His sophomore campaign was a disappointing .234/.323/.396, but it's too soon to write him off. He'll get another season to show he's the hitter projected coming up through the minors.
Analysis: By 2014, the Mariners' payroll will consist of Felix Hernandez and ... well, nobody else be making big money, depending on what happens with Ichiro and possibly Gutierrez. By then, their prized pitching prospects like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will hopefully be in the rotation. They'll need some offense. Mariners' attendance has dwindled in recent years, but this was once a franchise that led the AL in attendance and had some of the highest revenues in the game. A middle of the lineup featuring Dustin Ackley, Votto and Jesus Montero would look pretty sweet.
Analysis: For the Rangers, it's not quite as simple as eventually taking the salaries of Young and Nathan and giving that money to Votto. Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are signed through 2012; Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz could become free agents after 2013. Some of the younger players like Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz will be entering their arbitration years and receive big pay increases. So the Rangers' payroll will increase even as they likely part ways with Young in a couple years. Still, the Rangers will have room to expand well beyond their estimated 2011 payroll of $93 million, especially when their new local TV deal kicks in in 2015.
Contracts off the books: Berkman ($12 million in 2012); Carlos Beltran ($13 million per year through 2013); Rafael Furcal ($14 million through 2013); Kyle Lohse ($12.1 million in 2012); Jake Westbrook ($8.5 million in 2012).
Analysis: The Cardinals appear nicely situated for a Votto run, with only Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia signed long-term. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are also potential free agents after 2013, so depending on their health and effectiveness, the Cards could have a lot of spare cash lying around.
Analysis: The Jays are sitting in a perfect position. They're a big-market franchise currently masquerading as a middle-market team, but if they can regain the fan base they once had they'll be able to increase their payroll. The other good news: They have a slew of highly-regarded pitching prospects on the way up to join Romero and Morrow; if a couple of those kids pan out, the Jays could have a relatively cheap rotation for 2014, leaving plenty of money for Votto. Imagine a 3-4-5 of Bautista, Votto and Brett Lawrie.
Have we mentioned our man is Canadian? From Ontario?