Trade Joey Votto now, the theory goes. The Cincinnati Reds have him for two seasons until he becomes a free agent. He's one of the best players in the game. As a small-market franchise, the Reds will be unlikely to afford him when he hits the market. His trade value only drops if the Reds hold on to him for another season or if they look to deal him at the trade deadline in 2013. So trade him now, when his value is high. Get a slew of cheap, young prospects for him.
On one level, it makes sense. When the Texas Rangers traded Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves in 2007 -- with Teixiera still more than a year from free agency -- it was a deal that helped rebuild the franchise, as Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison became key contributors on two World Series teams.
Unfortunately, that deal is the exception rather than the rule (see the list below of superstars traded in recent years with at least one full season until they hit free agency). Here's the thing: Superstars are unbelievably hard to come by; you need them to win pennants and World Series titles; the goal of every team should be to acquire a superstar, not trade one away. In dealing for prospects, you are assuming all the risk (at least in talent acquisition; you do get an immediate financial savings, of course). Trading for prospects might seem like a good investment, but you are often instead left with a bunch of subprime players.
The Reds had a disappointing season in 2011, but they still have the same talent core that won the NL Central in 2010. Yes, they could use a starting pitcher and maybe Votto would bring one in return. But is Yonder Alonso really ready to fill Votto's shoes? Or was his .330/.398/.545 line in 98 plate appearances a fluke? The Reds' best chanc of winning in 2012 -- and I do believe they have a chance -- isn't trading Votto, but hoping for improvement from their starting rotation. The Reds don't need more young players -- they have Jay Bruce and Alonso and Aroldis Chapman and Devin Mesoraco and Drew Stubbs and Yasmani Grandal in the minors. Trading Votto for a pitcher isn't going to help if Homer Bailey and Edinson Volquez and Mike Leake don't improve anyway.
Plus, there's this scenario: If the goal is to trade Votto and hope you get lucky that one of the prospects develops into a star, wouldn't the Reds just end up facing the same scenario? The odds that you acquire three prospects, each of whom develops into a good player before he starts making big money, is extremely slim. Among other reasons, if those prospects were sure things, they wouldn't be getting traded.
So if I'm the Reds, I keep Votto. I do what the Brewers did in 2011 with Prince Fielder and the Rays in 2010 with Carl Crawford. Those clubs kept their impending free agents and won division titles. You need stars to win pennants. Joey Votto is the Reds' star.
* * * *
Here are some of those superstar deals and why I consider trading Votto for prospects a risk for the Reds.
Adrian Gonzalez (Padres to Red Sox) -- Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, Reymond Fuentes. Rizzo hit .331 with 26 home runs in 93 games in Triple-A, but just .141 in 49 big league games. He's just 22, so he has time. Kelly was actually the top prospect in the deal, but he's yet to harness is good stuff into productive results, posting a 3.98 ERA in Double-A with mediocre pheriphals. Fuentes is a speedy center fielder who hit .275 without power in Class A. The Padres' payroll actually increased in 2011 and their attendance actually remained steady compared to 2010 -- but it's down over 600,000 from 2007.
Zack Greinke (Brewers to Royals) -- Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffries, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi (plus the subtraction of Yuniesky Betancourt). Again, too soon to evaluate. If Escobar moves beyond a good-field, no-hit shortstop and Cain develops into the team's starting center fielder, it could be a decent return for the Royals.
Cliff Lee (Phillies to Mariners) -- Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramirez. None have reached the majors, although Aumount has closer potential. (And the Mariners later traded Lee to the Rangers, they helped a division rival reach its first World Series. Even though Lee didn't stay with Texas, that initial World Series trip helps bring in more fans, which adds more revenue long-term, and makes the Rangers more attractive for free agents. Why help a division rival? And Justin Smoak -- .227 career average -- has been so unimpressive, some think the Mariners should go after Votto this offseason.)
Roy Halladay (Blue Jays to Phillies) -- Kyle Drabek, Travis d'Arnaud, Michael Taylor. This one might yet work out for the Jays. Drabek was the top prospect in the deal, and while it's too early to write him off, he was terrible as a rookie (6.06 ERA) and even worse in Triple-A (7.44). But d'Arnaud is a promising catching prospect who hit .311/.371/.542 at Double-A and the Jays eventually turned Taylor into the talented, toolsy Anthony Gose (16 home runs, 70 steals in Double-A, but 154 strikeouts).
Cliff Lee (Indians to Phillies) -- Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, Lou Marson. The Indians traded Lee with one and a half years before he hit free agency. They don't have much to show yet, although maybe Carrasco will develop beyond a No. 5 starter.
Matt Holliday (Rockies to A's) -- Huston Street, Carlos Gonzalez, Greg Smith. The Rockies traded Holliday to the A's after the 2008 season. They even won the wild card in 2009, but slipped back to 73 wins in 2011. Holliday eventually signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Cardinals through 2016. The Rockies signed Gonzalez to a seven-year, $80 million extension from 2011 through 2017, and also paid Street $19 million from 2009 to 2011, and owe him $7.5 million in 2012 plus a $9 million player option for 2013.
So, did this trade work out for the Rockies? The tally so far, from 2009 through 2011:
Holliday: 15.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference), $56.1 million in salary
Gonzalez/Street: 12.6 WAR, $24.2 million in salary (and signing bonus), one playoff season
FanGraphs estimates that one extra win on the free-agent market is currently worth about $4.5 million, so in theory the A's/Cardinals have overpaid by $20.2 million for their addition 2.6 wins of estimated value in comparison to Gonzalez/Street.
Holliday: Five seasons, $86 million (assuming team doesn't pick up 2017 option)
Gonzalez/Street: Eight seasons, $93.5 million (assuming Street picks up 2013 option)
So far, the Rockies have saved about $32 million in payroll with a slight decrease in overall value. Long-term, they'll spend a little more money but spread out over more seasons. The question is if Gonzalez is the star player of 2010 or merely the solid starter of 2011. At worst, the deal is probably a wash as Holliday should decline as he ages, and a potential huge plus for the Rockies if CarGo has more years like 2010.
Johan Santana (Twins to Mets) -- Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey. A disaster for the Twins. They missed the playoffs by one game in 2008 (losing a tie-breaker playoff to the White Sox). Who knows, if they'd kept Santana they might have won the World Series.
Miguel Cabrera (Marlins to Tigers) -- Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo, Dallas Trahern. The Marlins have made some good deals but this was not one of them. (Dontrelle Willis was also traded to Detroit in the deal, although that was the best part of the trade for Florida.)
Mark Teixeira (Rangers to Braves) -- Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Beau Jones. The granddaddy that all small-market teams hope to emulate. I think it's important to note that the Rangers were in a different state in 2007 than the Reds are now -- they were on their way to an 87-loss season when Teixeira was traded, with their rotation compiling a depressing 5.50 ERA. As much as this trade helped -- especially with Harrison's emergence in 2011 -- it was the rebuilding of the rotation that turned the Rangers into a World Series team.