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A crazy idea that will never happen

...but nevertheless continues to intrigue the author

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals’ season is over. However, there’s still another month of exciting baseball to play before we properly enter the off-season. Trades and internal signings can happen now of course, but in general we’ll be waiting until at least November for the good stuff to happen.

Now is the time when fans begin to brainstorm what they think their favorite team should do. These are fun exercises that have become traditional fan behavior in baseball, despite the fact that the route the team ultimately takes will likely look nothing like what you dreamed up. One such scenario keeps swirling in my head, and I’d like to share it with you. Keep in mind as you read this that I admit that this has very little chance of happening. However, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing at this very early stage in the game?

Joey Votto continues to be one of the best hitters on the planet. Of 146 qualified players in 2016, he had the 3rd best wRC+ in the game. That’s thanks to posting the 4th best walk rate, 7th best BABIP, 36th best ISO, and 63rd lowest strikeout rate. You may not expect him to repeat a .366 BABIP going forward, but it’s not far off his .359 career mark. Votto is celebrated for his extreme lack of popups, and for good reason. He became a full-time player in 2008. Of 531 players with 1000 or more PA since 2008, he’s tied for first with Howie Kendrick with just  a 1.2% Infield Fly ball% (IFFB%, calculated as infield fly balls per fly ball). He’s also 5th in Line Drive% (LD%) over the same time frame and player sample. Those are both great reasons for his Fangraphs Depth Chart projection of a .350 BABIP going forward.

Regulars of this site are likely familiar with why trying to trade for Joey Votto is bound to be a headache. He has a full no-trade clause, is owed an excessive amount of money, and plays for a division rival. He’s also reportedly not interested in waiving his no-trade clause. We’ve seen two deals nixed in the last year due to players exercising their no-trade clause rights. One came last winter when Votto’s teammate Brandon Phillips wanted a contract extension in return for waiving his rights, something the Nationals were unwilling to do. At this year’s trade deadline, Jonathan Lucroy vetoed a trade to the Indians because the team was unwilling to either guarantee him the starting catcher spot in 2017 or tear up his ridiculously cheap $5.25M team option for 2017.

If Joey was interested in waiving his rights, the Cardinals may need to give in on something. Votto may demand the Cardinals guarantee his 2024 team option, valued at $20M with a $7M buyout. That would essentially mean $13M more for Votto. On top of everything else, the Reds would need to be cool with dealing Votto in-division. The Reds would have to deal with at least a few years of their fans seeing constant reminders of his awesomeness, but now in the enemy's uniform instead of their own.

However, Joey has kind of a "special" relationship with Reds fans. Many fans believe Votto is too patient at the plate, and passes up too many chances to knock in runners. In other words, they don’t appreciate his all-world ability to control the strike zone. A large fraction of Reds fans would be happy to unload the $179M remaining on his deal, and would be doubly happy to see the hated Cardinals take on what many see as an albatross of a contract.

As far as I see it, the Reds should want to unload Votto. Their rebuild is going slowly, and the Brewers are going to beat them to contention. The likelihood of a still-elite Joey Votto contributing to the next Reds team with a realistic shot at the playoffs is slim to none. But it’s not that simple. Short-term profit is a big factor driving decisions, and Votto is one of the only marketable pieces the Reds have. No matter how horrible they get, fans who appreciate his elite abilities still have some reason to go to the ballpark and tune in on TV.

And what about that contract? Though $179M is a large sum even in baseball terms, Votto is one of the few talents worth it. Here’s a simple contract value calculation for Joey, starting with his current projection of 4.9 WAR for a full season, and subtract half a win a year. We’ll take the price of WAR at $8M, and add in 5% inflation for each of his 7 remaining guaranteed years:

Votto looks to supply plenty of surplus value in the next few years, and the deal at least doesn’t project to end horribly, with the only somewhat significant deficit value coming in the final year of the contract. That total does include the $7M buyout in 2024, but you could just imagine it as an extra million a year during the guaranteed years.

Right now, Votto is worth the massive contract. It’s a risky proposition when you’re talking about that much money for an aging player, but it looks like the risk is worth the reward on the surface. The Reds could actually rightfully demand a decent amount of value going back. They probably would need a good return anyway, so they can spin the move to their fans as not just shedding payroll but a necessary move as part of a greater rebuild.

I wanted to get a better idea of what a declining Votto would be expected to look like. Using Fangraphs’ leaderboards, I built some aging curves based on data from 2006 on, which is when drug testing started in the Major Leagues. Using back-to-back seasons of 100 PA or more, I recorded how each player’s stats changed from year to year. I did this for four stats: BB%, K%, ISO, and BABIP:

Votto enters his age 33 season next year, so he should mostly just be expected to decline. Walk rate however, holds relatively steady. The age curve for walks may look like it bounces around a bit at first sight, but the vertical axis shows that we’re only talking about very small changes year to year. When we get to age 33, we’re talking about less than 200 back-to-back seasons (and less going forward), so the sample is a little too small to produce a more gradual, realistic average. Here’s one for wRC+:

This is a similar result to the study linked above: no matter the age, everyone is expected to get worse as they age. The graphs are fun, but it might be a little difficult to translate those images into an understanding of what to expect from a player as he ages. So I started with Votto’s current projected line (linked above), and used that as his expected production for 2017. From there, I aged his stats according to the aging curve data presented above. Here are the results:

The average aging curve implies that even after several years, Votto should be able to prop up average-ish strikeout and power rates with superb walk and BABIP rates. Of course, no one ages at the average rate. Maybe Votto ages like Matt Holliday, maybe he ages like Albert Pujols. It'll probably be somewhere in between, but there's a wide variance. That’s the inherent risk of taking on such a commitment. What you see above is essentially an over/under, based on historical averages.

Again, this isn't a very realistic move. Many fans want to trade for a great defender in center with a good-enough bat to not be a liability, such as Kevin Kiermaier. That would move Grichuk over to left, a big upgrade overall to the outfield defense. The two moves aren't mutually exclusive (in fact, it's a lot of fun to think about pulling off both), but that type of deal is much more likely.

However, what I really want is to see the Cardinals add a real high-end talent, and that’s exactly what Votto is. And in a free agent market headlined by Yoenis Cespedes, you can’t get one just with cash. I’d prefer the team spend money and not talent, so Votto’s high salary is actually a positive to me, as it would lower the value of the players going the other way. It just requires a few steps beforehand that probably won’t work out.

Try as I might though, I can’t get this unlikely idea out of my head. Maybe I just want to see an all-world hitter wearing the Birds of the Bat, even if it means overlooking a few obvious roadblocks. Honestly though, I think it’s just the fun of the off-season to imagine the different paths your favorite team can take.