Forget Prince Fielder – Target Joey Votto Instead
A lot of people want the Mariners to make a big move to upgrade the offense this winter. Given the ineptitude of the team’s ability to score runs the last two years, it’s an understandable sentiment – no one really wants to see the team struggle to put up three runs a game again next year. Most of the focus on the offense’s weaknesses has been on the team’s relative lack of power, so in general, the expectation has been that the team would go for a guy who can hit the ball to the moon; specifically, Prince Fielder.
He fits a need. Jack drafted him when he was in Milwaukee. With the Red Sox and Yankees unlikely to be in the bidding, this is one of the few off-seasons where the M’s could probably win a bidding war for a coveted free agent hitter. There are reasons why you can make a case for the M’s blowing their budget to bring Fielder to Seattle, but if they do decide to make a big splash this winter (and I’m not sure that it’s the right path, but that’s another post), I’d rather they target another NL Central first baseman. No, not fellow free agent Albert Pujols – Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
Votto is what Fielder is hyped as but is not actually – one of the very best players in all of baseball. Their career WAR totals are actually very similar (22.7 for Fielder, 23.0 for Votto), except Fielder has an extra 1,600 plate appearances in his career. While they are pretty similar types of hitters, Votto is just better, and the comparison becomes somewhat comical when we look at areas like defense and baserunning. While Fielder is a good bat, Votto is an all-around superstar, providing value at every aspect of the game.
Of course, the Reds realize all of this too, and they won’t be in any hurry to move their franchise player. However, they have to see that the writing is on the wall, and Votto’s career in Cincinnati almost certainly won’t extend beyond 2013, as they just won’t be able to pay the market rate for a guy like Votto once he reaches free agency. He’s under contract for the next two seasons, but a talent like Votto is simply too valuable to let walk away for draft picks (which might not even exist by the time Votto hits FA), so at some point in the next 18 months, the Reds are probably going to have to trade him. They don’t have to trade him this winter, but with promising prospect Yonder Alonso looking capable of filling a potential void at first base, they could probably be talked into moving him for the right return.
Now, for a player like Votto, you’re not talking about a collection of prospects – to get him, you’d have to give up significant pieces off your Major League roster. For the Mariners to have any chance of landing Votto in trade, they’d almost certainly have to build a package around Michael Pineda.
I know, the last time I suggested that the M’s look into trading Pineda, a lot of you weren’t big fans of the proposal. He’s a quality starting pitcher making the league minimum, under team control for five more seasons, and is one of the few bright spots in the organization right now. He’s the kind of guy that most organizations won’t part with. And that’s exactly why the M’s could land Votto this winter.
You put Pineda on the table (and realistically, to get a deal done, you’d probably have to include a couple more players as well) and the Reds will listen. There aren’t many other teams out there who could offer up that kind of high ceiling talent who could also be a difference maker for the 2012 Reds. They lack high-end talent at the front of their rotation, and you could make a pretty decent case to Walt Jocketty that he wouldn’t be that much worse off with Pineda in the rotation, Alonso at first base, and $10 million extra to spend in free agency than with the configuration he has now, and Pineda would give the Reds the kind of long term value that two more years of Votto just can’t offer.
At the least, the Reds would be forced to consider a deal. Maybe you have to put Brandon League in the package as well. Maybe you have to add in a prospect or two. But if Jack Z calls and says Pineda is in play if they’ll talk about Votto, Jocketty isn’t hanging up.
I know many of you will say that giving up five years of Pineda is too high a cost to pay to acquire Votto when you can just sign Fielder as a free agent. But, in reality, I’d argue that the cost to acquiring and keeping Votto might very well be lower than signing Fielder.
Fielder is a Scott Boras client, and they’ve made no secret of the fact that they are looking for a contract that would pay Fielder like he’s one of the game’s elite. The Brewers reportedly offered a five year, $100 million extension and were told that they weren’t even in the ballpark, at which time negotiations ended and haven’t resumed since. Boras has instead made comparisons to guys like Mark Teixeira, who got $180 million over eight years from the Yankees, and given that he was able to get $126 million for Jayson Werth, it’s not hard to see Boras getting into the Teixeira/Gonzalez neighborhood for Fielder. In other words, you’re looking at something in the range of $25 million per year for the next 6-7 years.
Votto, on the other hand, is scheduled to make just $9 million next year and then $17 million in 2013 before he reaches free agency. Retaining him beyond those years will take a Fielder-sized contract (the differences between the two are primarily in things that the market doesn’t value, so Votto probably won’t get a significantly larger deal than Fielder as an FA), but having an MVP-caliber player at significantly discounted rates for two years gives the Mariners an opportunity to do something they probably wouldn’t be able to do if they just signed Fielder – potentially contend in 2012.
Yes, they’d lose Pineda, but they’d save $10 to $15 million in 2012 salary by paying Votto instead of Fielder, and that money could then be allocated to upgrading the rest of the roster. Yes, you’d have to use some of it to acquire a starting pitcher to replace Pineda, but Safeco Field gives the Mariners a huge advantage in acquiring useful pitchers for below market rates. Maybe you won’t get a power arm who racks up the strikeouts, but the M’s could replace Pineda’s actual on field production without blowing all of the cost savings and have enough left over to upgrade several of the other holes on the roster.
With Ichiro’s contract coming off the books after 2012, the M’s could afford to give Votto a monster extension next winter without having to massively expand the payroll. They aren’t in that position this off-season, as signing Fielder would essentially be the only thing they could afford to do, and they might even have to cut payroll in other places in order to fit him into the budget. By himself, Prince Fielder doesn’t make the M’s a good team next year, so just adding him to the current talent in the organization isn’t enough, but it probably is all they could realistically do this winter.
Votto, though, opens the door for real substantial improvement. By bringing in a lower priced superstar, the team would give themselves the flexibility to make real substantial improvements across the roster. They probably can’t catch up to Texas in one off-season, but there’s enough young talent in place that a few key upgrades along with Votto would give the team a chance to win next year.
And, in reality, this organization needs to start winning sooner than later. The fans continue to avoid Safeco Field (they’re down 200,000 in attendance compared to 2010), and engaging in another non-competitive season is likely to cut into revenues to an even greater degree. The M’s just aren’t in a position to bet the farm on the most unreliable asset in the sport – young pitching – but right now, that’s the area that the team has gathered the most talent. It might be fun to dream of a Felix/Pineda/Hultzen/Paxton rotation, but that’s the kind of dream that can blow up really fast, and an arm injury here or regression there, and all of the sudden, the team is in both short term and long term trouble.
The cost of acquiring Votto might be a prized young arm, but the cost of signing Fielder and hoping all the young pitching pans out is even greater – if the guy who is already too big to play an adequate first base begins to have health issues, or if any of the young pitchers feel pain in their arms, there’s no safety net in place, and it’s organizational suicide for the next decade or so. The Mariners can’t survive Fielder turning into Mo Vaughn – they don’t have the kind of budget that would let them build a winner around that kind of busted contract.
Betting on a 300 pound DH and a bunch of young arms to develop is a strategy fraught with risk – even more risk than trading Pineda away and watching him develop into an ace somewhere else. Yes, you might be giving up some long term potential by moving Pineda, but getting a true superstar in Votto would be enough to justify pulling the trigger.
If this team decides the 2012 roster needs a big shot in the arm, I’d suggest that Fielder isn’t a big enough boost. He’s a nice player, but he’s not really a superstar, and he’s going to be drastically overpaid this winter. If the M’s are in the mood to make a big splash, they’d be better off paying the price to acquire Joey Votto, and then using the money they saved to build out a competitive roster and make a real run at winning in 2012. Give Votto a good experience in his first year in Seattle, let him play with Felix Hernandez and Dustin Ackley, show him how beautiful the area can be in the summer, and you might even be able to extend him next winter for less than what Fielder would cost you this winter.
Prince Fielder would make the M’s offense better, but he wouldn’t make the M’s contenders. If they want to really push this organization forward in a hurry, Joey Votto is the man to target this off-season.