Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/31/12

This afternoon, ESPN is hosting their Franchise Player Draft, tapping 30 of their writers and television personalities to select the player that they would want to build a franchise from scratch around for the next 10 years. As with last year’s version, I was invited to participate, and I was given the eighth overall selection through the random draft order.

Sitting at #8, I knew that Matt Kemp, Evan Longoria, and Troy Tulowitzki were going to be off the board. The understanding of positional scarcity has been drilled into fans since the advent of fantasy baseball, and everyone generally accepts that guys who play up the middle positions while also providing top notch offensive abilities are the hardest players to find in the sport. Longoria might not be an up-the-middle guy as a third baseman, but he’s got the defensive abilities of a shortstop, so he slides into that mold even though he technically plays a corner spot.

I also assumed that several guys ahead of me would be big fans of “#1 starters”, so Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Stephen Strasburg would probably be off the board as well. This is mostly just a philosophical issue, but I will continue to believe that building your franchise around a pitcher is simply unwise. Last year, Felix Hernandez (#3), Tim Lincecum (#5), and Josh Johnson (#6) were the guys who were justified as good enough to be worth the risk, and since then, Felix has lost 2 MPH off his fastball, Lincecum has lost his ability to throw strikes, and Josh Johnson has thrown about 70 innings since he was selected. Kershaw, Verlander, and Strasburg are obviously fantastic talents, but a realistic evaluation of the risks associated with even the very best pitchers pushes the risk/reward trade-off out of balance. I was happy to see that all three went before my selection, leaving me more quality position players to choose from.

So, I began my research assuming that I’d be picking from the pool of players that didn’t include those six guys. I wasn’t sure who would go #7, but the way I saw it, there were a lot of good choices at that spot, and I’d be happy with any one of about eight guys who would likely be available at that spot. In looking over the options, I narrowed down my potential selections to the following eight players, listed in alphabetical order:

Ryan Braun
Miguel Cabrera
Bryce Harper
Andrew McCutchen
Giancarlo Stanton
Mike Trout
Justin Upton
Joey Votto

Six outfielders and two first baseman (one of whom is currently pretending to be a third baseman), with Cabrera, Votto, and Braun representing the old guys, all being born in 1983. Upton, McCutchen, and Stanton represented younger options who weren’t quite as good but also had room for growth and could be expected to spend most of the next 10 years in their prime, while Trout and Harper are perhaps the two most intriguing young players to enter the sport in recent years, offering the opportunity to take guys who would be in their twenties for the entirety of the period we were evaluating. There were legitimate cases to be made for all of them, but I started leaning towards Bryce Harper. As we noted the other day, what Harper is doing is exceptionally rare, and he could very easily turn into baseball’s best hitter within the next several years.

But then, I started to ponder – my options are essentially to take a young player who could become one of the best players in baseball, or I could take a guy who is already in the mix for that title. And so, after some deliberation, I settled on Votto.

Yes, he’s a first baseman. Yes, he’s nearly a decade older than Harper, and he’ll be finishing his age 37 season in 10 years. Yes, any of the five younger players would have likely given more value in years 6-10, but the goal isn’t to maximize long term value, it’s to maximize overall value, so we cannot ignore the significant gap in present value that Votto has over the younger players.

Since the start of the 2009 season, most regulars have racked up about 2,000 plate appearances. Over that time frame, Evan Longoria leads the majors with +22.2 WAR, but Votto has essentially matched him, putting up +21.9 WAR over the same time period. For all intents and purposes, Longoria and Votto share the top spot, coming in at +7 WAR per full season.

And if we care more about recent performance, Votto’s standing actually improves. Eliminating 2009, so just covering the last 2.3 seasons, Votto edges out Josh Hamilton for the top spot, with Longoria falling to fifth due to his time on the DL. Since the start of 2011, Votto comes in third, just behind Kemp and Braun.

It was generally accepted that Longoria and Kemp would be top tier selections because of their present value as elite players, but if we agree that those guys are too good to pass up for premium young talents, than we have to come to the same conclusion about Votto. Even with the positional adjustment, he’s been every bit as good as Longoria, Kemp, or Tulowitzki. Put simply, Votto’s bat is so dominant that he creates his own level of positional scarcity at first base. Just like there aren’t many other center fielders who can hit like Kemp, there aren’t many other first baseman who hit like Votto.

So, position scarcity isn’t really a relevant argument here. In the end, the decision had to come down to present talent versus future talent. In Votto, Cabrera, and Braun, I had three guys in their prime who all project as roughly +6 to +7 win players in the short term and who were several years off from their decline, while Harper, Trout, Stanton, Upton and McCutchen all were more +4 to +5 win players with upside to grow beyond that.

In looking at overall value, I assumed that taking one of the older guys would get me progressive value that looked something like this:

2012: +7.0 WAR
2013: +7.0 WAR
2014: +6.5 WAR
2015: +6.0 WAR
2016: +5.5 WAR
2017: +5.0 WAR
2018: +4.0 WAR
2019: +3.0 WAR
2020: +2.0 WAR
2021: +1.0 WAR

That’s +47 WAR over the next 10 years, even including a pretty significant decline phase for each player who would end the span in their mid-30s. Now, here’s what I think I might get from one of the younger guys:

2012: +4.0 WAR
2013: +4.5 WAR
2014: +5.5 WAR
2015: +6.5 WAR
2016: +7.0 WAR
2017: +7.0 WAR
2018: +7.0 WAR
2019: +7.0 WAR
2020: +6.5 WAR
2021: +6.0 WAR

The trajectory may be slightly different for a guy like Upton versus Harper since he’s already a few years older, but the tweaks you’d make aren’t that huge, so for the ease of calculations, let’s just assume that all the younger players could put up something like this over the next 10 years in a best case scenario. That’s +61 WAR over 10 years, obviously a better total than what the older guys would offer. So, take the younger guy, right?

Not so fast. There’s two other factors that have to be weighed as well – the timing of when the value is produced and the risk of not getting it to begin with. Present value is not only worth more because it helps generate present days wins (and thus, present day revenue which can be invested in the team to generate future wins, essentially creating baseball’s version of compound interest), but it comes with a significantly lower risk of loss.

We know that Votto, Cabrera, and Braun are +6 to +7 win players right now. We think that Trout, Harper, Stanton, et all can become +7 win players in a few years. However, there are extra risks associated with development patterns that aren’t associated with risk. It is more likely that an injury or off the field issue would interfere to prevent the acquisition of a new level skill than it is that an injury would take away an existing skill. Votto, Cabrera, and Braun could all get hurt, but short of some kind of head injury that limits their ability to see, the odds of them suffering an injury that degrades their ability to hit is not that large. Injuries could diminish their value on defense or on the bases, but even a torn ACL won’t take away the skills they’ve already developed at the plate.

On the other hand, if Harper or Trout blow out their knee, not only will they lose the value that comes attached with playing time, they lose the value of that necessary development time seeing big league pitches and making adjustments as needed. If Harper were to miss the entire 2013 season, he wouldn’t just be losing the +4 to +5 WAR season you might project him to have, he’d be losing out on playing time that would help him become the +7 WAR guy that he might be down the line. The cost of lost development time is an extra risk factor that has to be accounted for.

With Votto, Braun, and Cabrera, the fact that their highest levels of production is coming in the near term significantly increases the chance that you’d get those years. Delaying elite production into the future puts those extremely valuable years in jeopardy. If you knew that both Harper and Votto were going to blow out their knees after year four, wiping out the rest of their careers in the process, you’d only be losing +25.5 WAR with Votto but +40.5 WAR with Harper.

Even beyond the risk factors, though, short terms wins are more valuable than long term wins. Over the next three years, the older star player is expected to give you +20 wins versus +14 for the younger guy. Those extra six wins could very well be the difference between making the playoffs and watching at home, and the rewards that come with a deep playoff run are enormous. Look at the top five teams in attendance right now: Philadelphia, Texas, St. Louis, San Francisco, and New York. Those four teams represent the last four to win the World Series and the team who has been there in each of the last two seasons.

Not coincidentally, those five all rank in the top nine in 2012 team payroll, as the amount of interest in the team directly enables the franchise to spend more money on the talent on the field. If faced with a choice between present wins and future wins, the difference in total expectation has to be dramatically different in order to sacrifice the revenue gains associated with present day wins.

In other words, if I take Harper or Trout over Votto, I’m also all but guaranteeing that I’ll be putting an inferior product around him due to lower expected revenues and payroll levels. Yes, a guy like Harper might be a star attraction draw, but what really gets fans to the ballpark is winning, and especially winning in October. Taking Votto, Cabrera, or Braun is more likely to get me those October wins in the next three years than any of the younger guys, and I don’t see the gap in long term value outweighing both the risks associated with never getting that value or the financial cost of putting a less competitive team on the field in the short term.

So, with all due respect to Trout, Stanton, Upton, McCutchen, and Harper, I decided to go with the guy who was already a star instead of the guy who could become one. That left me with Votto, Cabrera, and Braun.

And from there, it was a fairly easy selection. They’re all great hitters, and pretty close to each other in raw offensive ability. Votto has a slight edge over Cabrera (164 to 160 wRC+) since 2009, with Braun trailing both by another small margin (156 wRC+), but it’s close enough to say that each have a claim as the best hitter in baseball. There’s not enough room there to make the call simply based on offensive ability.

So, it came down to things other than batting, and that’s where Votto wins out. While Cabrera is valiantly trying to play third base, he’s simply not a positive asset anywhere on the field, and his lack of speed make him a liability on the base paths as well. Once you add in his off the field issues with alcohol, those factors pushed him out of the discussion – the others offered the same kind of present value with less baggage. That left just Braun or Votto.

The appeal of an athletic outfielder who is actually a very good baserunner was there, but in the end, Votto’s ability to play quality defense at first base won out. Braun isn’t the disaster in left field that he used to be, but he’s still not very good out there, and he’ll likely end up at first base before his career is over. Votto is just the more complete player, and when coupled with his better offensive track record, I felt like he was the right call at that pick.

A great player now is worth more than a great player in the future. A position player is simply less likely to go down in flames than a pitcher. Given these truisms, I’d probably have taken Votto had I picked anywhere from #4 on down. At #8, he was too good to pass up. Starting a franchise around the best left-handed hitter in the game is almost a no-brainer.

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