Joey Votto and what retiring as a Red might mean

Yesterday we learned that Ruben Amaro was a visionary. On April 26, 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract that was really a seven-year, $164 million contract. In 2011 the St. Louis Cardinals failed to resign Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers failed to resign Prince Fielder. And yesterday, the Cincinnati Reds signed Joey Votto to a 10-year, $225 million deal that's really a 12-year, $251 million deal.

That, apparently, is the secret. Ruben Amaro saw, in 2010, that lumbering middle-of-the-order sluggers were growing scarce, even as their value was revised downward by a succession of statistical finds, and he got his by signing him to a free-agency-style deal before he was anywhere near free agency. Presumably the Cardinals and the Brewers could have managed the same thing, but they didn't, and the Cardinals, at least, paid for it; now Walt Jocketty and the Reds have.

Statistically speaking, this deal is almost impossible to rationalize; other sites will go farther than I'm going to bother to prove or disprove that, but the contours of that impossibility are pretty easy to sketch. Votto has a lot of the same advantages Albert Pujols does, in smaller doses—he's an excellent athlete, he's got a broad base of offensive and defensive skills, and he now has three straight years as a top-tier hitter, something Prince Fielder has yet to manage. He's worth more than $22.5 million a year right now, which is a good start compared to Ryan Howard.

But the new economics of these long-distance, long-term deals erode his main advantage, which was his youth. He's baseball-28 now, the same age as Prince Fielder, but he'll be 30 before the deal begins, just two years younger than Pujols at the start of his Los-Angeles-of-Anaheim stint. The Reds will have to deal with his 38 and 39-year-old seasons, now, like all the other first basemen.

I'm glossing over all that because it seems obviously problematic, and because nobody needs to read here what they've already seen on FanGraphs. What seems more interesting to me is the post sitting on the front page of Red Reporter as I type this—What Joey Votto means to the Reds. To summarize: Joey Votto proves the Reds exist—they're consequential, they function, they can compete with the bigger teams for their own stars—and gives Reds fans of the present and the future something to rally around, a "future... statue on Crosley Terrace."

I'm sympathetic to this argument because I wanted all of that when the Cardinals whiffed on Pujols, and if they'd signed him to an equally unworkable deal back in December, I'd have written the same article. (If they signed him to an equally unworkable deal now, I'd write the same article.) I'm also sympathetic because its opposite is exactly the reason the Cardinals have stuck the landing after Albert Pujols's departure so perfectly. The Cardinals' existence is something apart from, and more important to their reputation than, any one player; they didn't need another statue in front of Busch Stadium, because the uniform, and the stadium, and all that lore is what feeds its legends, and not the other way around.

This has been remarkable, sometimes, when an Ozzie Smith or a Stan Musial comes along, and corrosive other times, when players like J.D. Drew or Ray Lankford are run out of town; it's the reason somebody paid me to write a book with David Freese on the cover (yeah, that's a plug), and it's also the cause for all that noxious best-fans-in-baseball stuff. But it's become unavoidable after Pujols: The best Cardinals, the all-time greats, don't carry the franchise or assure its relevance or change it in any way—they're just allowed to represent the qualities that have long since been ascribed to Cardinal-hood. Stan and Ozzie are our greatest heroes because they could be so perfectly conflated with the Birds on the Bat, and our idea of the National League's best franchise as somehow humble, joyful, team-focused, heroic.

When Albert Pujols left, we just remembered the good parts and revoked, all at once, his license to humility and Midwest Nice and love-of-the-gaminess. The Cardinals had existed as the Cardinals before he showed up, and they'd continue to exist in the same way without him. I'm not really happy about that—I'd rather root for people than tradition, every time—but it's how it's turned out.

I don't think the Reds have this same—well, luxury or pathology, whatever it is, and I think there's something to that piece's conception of Joey Votto as the new Barry Larkin, the focal point of a franchise that's been floating around without one for years now. The Phillies were doing the same thing when they signed Ryan Howard, I think—they were locking in their identity as a dynasty filled with homegrown talent.

But it doesn't always work out with a statue on Crosley Terrace and a retired number. Ryan Howard's the handiest example; since signing his pre-extension he's had his two worst seasons and ended last year's NLDS on an exceptionally grisly note. But the Reds have already experienced this, with their last attempt at franchise reinvention, when they traded for an even better homegrown 30-year-old with the idea of establishing their major league relevance and cementing their identity as contenders.

The Votto deal isn't likely to fall through nearly so spectacularly, and he's already well on his way to a retired number and that idyllic generational scene Red Reporter describes. It's good for baseball that Votto's stuck around, and good for crotchety old baseball columnists, and good for the Reds in the medium term; it'll probably be good for Reds fans forever, once he's long-enough retired for sculpture to be a concern. But making the investment isn't enough to guarantee it'll pay off, and paying Votto so much that he might prove detrimental to their ability to win could give this player and this team an entirely different legacy.

For now we know how teams will sign their face-of-the-franchise sluggers to long-term deals, but it will be a while before we figure out, in our super-quantified environment, just how much lost value keeping our stars in one uniform is still worth.

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