By Joe Lemire
April 02, 2012

With first basemen Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder the 2011 NL Central boasted one of the greatest collections of talent at one position any one division has ever seen, a trio of close-proximity, in-their-prime superstars perhaps exceeded only by 1950s New York when Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider all played center field within the same city limits (though in different leagues).

A year later Pujols, Votto and Fielder are all more than $200 million richer, but only Votto remains not just in the Central division but anywhere in the NL.

Votto was the perfect guy to stop the Great American (League) Migration.

The price was steep and the length enormous: the Reds reportedly extended their franchise player for 10 years and $225 million on top of the two years and $26.5 million remaining on his pre-existing contract, meaning Votto is under contract through 2023.

The lefty-swinging, righty-throwing first baseman turned 28 in September and has turned himself into an MVP (in 2010) and Gold Glove winner (in 2011). That high level of well-rounded production, combined with consistent offensive performance, makes him a better bet than most to be worth the long-term contract, especially since he's plays first base, where production typically diminishes more slowly than in the middle of the diamond.

He's eight months older than Fielder but is a better defender, and he's three and a half years younger than Pujols.

Votto's last three seasons stack up with anyone in baseball. Votto has earned an 18.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to FanGraphs, while averaging 30 home runs and 38 doubles with a .318 average (fourth among major leaguers), .418 on-base percentage (second), .565 slugging (third) and .983 OPS (third).

Those are all brilliant statistics, and they are now joined by two other numbers that will now define Votto's career: 12 years and $251.5 million.

That is a staggering amount of money over a staggeringly long period of time, especially considering that Votto was two years away from free agency.

But maybe such a contract is simply the culmination of a paradigm-shifting offseason.

While Pujols and Fielder became the second and third players to receive contracts in excess of $200 million, Votto is now the fourth. Also, Votto joined an increasing number of star players who signed extensions before hitting the open market, a group headlined by the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen and the Giants' Matt Cain. The career contracts previously given out to the Brewers' Ryan Braun and the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki are looking much better with a little hindsight.

When such a contract is completed before free agency, the player's sacrifice is that he might outperform his guaranteed salary. The club, on the other hand, assumes the risk that the player gets injured or performs below expectations. In the case of a contract this long and this rich, the Reds would seem to be assuming more risk.

Then again, his price may only have continued to go up for three reasons: 1) lucrative television contracts are fueling an influx of new money into the sport; 2) franchise values could escalate after the Dodgers were sold for $2.15 billion; 3) as more players sign extensions before hitting free agency, the supply of free-agent players will fall short of the demand, which could drive up salaries further.

In fact, securing a franchise cornerstone such as Votto for what is likely the rest of his career, could be the very vehicle the Reds need to boost ticket sales and drive up the value of their franchise and/or TV contract.

And it's good for baseball that such a star is willing and able to remain with a small-market club, rather than see further concentration of the game's best-known players.

In an interview with at his spring training locker two weeks ago, Votto expressed confidence in the direction of the franchise. After winning the NL Central two years ago, the Reds only won 79 games last season but added starter Mat Latos and relievers Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson over the winter (though Madson will miss the year after having Tommy John surgery) to complement the young core.

"I think it's really important to stick with the talent you have," Votto said in mid-March, "especially if they have a lot of potential because you can see major jumps and those major jumps could come [at any time]. The guy you could have spent $15-to-$20 million on in the free-agent market [could come from within].

"If a guy like Jay Bruce makes a major jump, all of a sudden he's a $20 million player. I made a major jump one year and I won the MVP. You have to stick it out with some young players, and I think that's wise. Last year we expected some major jumps from a lot of players, and it didn't happen to happen, but you'd be foolish to sell low with them."

While discussing players who had left the NL for the AL, Votto said, "I don't think the league makes too much of a difference to players, in general, unless they're aging."

The DH is certainly a safety net for premier offensive players late in their career, but Votto said he believed a player ought to be able to play defensively into his late 30s. (His new deal expires after his age-39 season.)

Votto takes great pride in his defense, growing determined to improve after he was thought to be a liability with his glove in the minor leagues and doing extensive drill work (many of his own design) all offseason to hone his skill. He occasionally served as the DH in the minors and was determined not to repeat that fate.

"They DH-ed me and I couldn't stand it," he said. "That's one of the advantages of being recognized as a Gold Glove winner. If I happen to play deep into my career and if I happen to play in the American League, I'm pretty confident teams would still want to stick me out there."

That hypothetical is no longer an issue. For better or worse, Votto is the Reds' first baseman for a very long time. Any 12-year contract will make a club a bit uneasy, but if there's a player for whom it's more likely better than worse, it's Votto.

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