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Top players like Votto worth long-term risk

4/3/2012

On Tuesday we unveil the top 10 in the ESPN 500 rankings. Joey Votto didn't make the top 10 -- he ranked 19th, but should have been higher in my humble opinion -- but I did want to make a couple of more points regarding his reported 10-year contract extension.

First, I love the deal; others disagree, siding with the opinion of ESPN Insider Keith Law that as Votto ages, the second half of the contract could become a huge albatross. As Keith writes,Insider "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."

But here's the problem the Reds faced: Without Votto, they probably can't win. Yes, they could have kept him for two more years and then lost him to free agency; or they could have kept him for a year and then traded him for prospects. But if they want to win for the next five or six years, they need a player of Votto's stature.

Here's what I mean. I looked up all the players on playoff teams since 2009 with a season WAR of 5.0 or greater, per Baseball-Reference. I know some of you don't like WAR, but it works nicely for a quick study like this. Before I show you the complete list, the main point: Every playoff team had at least one player with a 5.0 WAR (and usually at least two). In theory, you can try to win with multiple three- and four-win players, but the reality is it doesn't seem to work. You need big stars. Even if you take on long-term risk.

Outside of Votto, who do the Reds have? Drew Stubbs had a 5.2 WAR season in 2010, largely due to a superbly rated defensive season. Jay Bruce is a nice player, but not really a guy who can carry the label of best player on a division winner. Maybe Mat Latos develops into a Cy Young contender, maybe Devin Mesoraco turns into an All-Star catcher. But those are wild cards; Votto is not a wild card. He's one of the best players in baseball.

By the way, Baseball-Reference grades 78 position-player seasons at 5.0 or higher since 2009, so 39 percent of those occurred on the 24 playoff teams. There were 42 pitcher-seasons of 5.0 or higher (38 percent on playoff teams). WAR measures a player's all-around game, thus you see a few defensive wonders like Stubbs or Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez in 2009 accumulate a high WAR total. Few players are consistent five-win players almost solely because of their bat.

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One more note. In my earlier post on Votto, I mentioned the scarcity of top players who will be hitting the free-agent market in upcoming years. This is where I tie this back into the ESPN 500 list!

Here are the top 10 players in alphabetical order followed by the complete top 40 with their contract situations. For players who have a team option on their deal, I included the option year as the "signed through" season. For players who vest if they stay healthy, I listed both seasons. (Data from Cot's Baseball Contracts website.)

Ryan Braun: Signed through 2020

Miguel Cabrera: Signed through 2015

Robinson Cano: Signed through 2013

Roy Halladay: Signed through 2013 or 2014

Felix Hernandez: Signed through 2014

Clayton Kershaw: Eligible for free agency after 2014

Tim Lincecum: Signed through 2013

Albert Pujols: Signed through 2021

Troy Tulowitzki: Signed through 2021

Justin Verlander: Signed through 2014

11. CC Sabathia: Signed through 2016 or 2017

12. Mariano Rivera: Signed through 2012

13. Matt Kemp: Signed through 2019

14. Jose Bautista: Signed through 2016

15. Adrian Gonzalez: Signed through 2018

16. Evan Longoria: Signed through 2016

17. Prince Fielder: Signed through 2020

18. Cliff Lee: Signed through 2015 or 2016

19. Joey Votto: Reportedly to be signed through 2023

20. Cole Hamels: Eligible for free agency after 2012

21. Justin Upton: Signed through 2015

22. Dustin Pedroia: Signed through 2015

23. Jacoby Ellsbury: Eligible for free agency after 2013

24. Jered Weaver: Signed through 2016

25. Josh Hamilton: Eligible for free agency after 2012

26. Jose Reyes: Signed through 2018

27. David Price: Eligible for free agency after 2015

28. Curtis Granderson: Signed through 2013

29. Chris Carpenter: Signed through 2013

30. Josh Johnson: Signed through 2013

31. Jon Lester: Signed through 2014

32. Mark Teixeira: Signed through 2016

33. Hanley Ramirez: Signed through 2014

34. Brian McCann: Signed through 2013

35. Dan Haren: Signed through 2013

36. Adrian Beltre: Signed through 2016

37. Matt Holliday: Signed through 2017

38. Matt Cain: Signed through 2017 or 2018

39. Joe Mauer: Signed through 2018

40. Giancarlo Stanton: Eligible for free agency after 2016

As you can see, not a lot of manly free agents in the next few seasons. Those teams that love to throw around the cash may have limited options.