The Cincinnati Reds have locked up left handed reliever Sean Marshall for $16.5 million over three years beginning in 2013. This coming season, Marshall will earn $3.1 million as the final part of the two year deal he signed with the Chicago Cubs to cover his remaining years of arbitration eligibility.

The contract is especially noteworthy not only because it includes $1 million bonuses for both games started and games finished, but also because of this:

Impending free agency isn’t a fun topic for the Reds. On again, off again negotiations with Brandon Phillips have so far failed to result in an extension, and as ESPN’s Keith Law hints at above, the team’s best player has a contract that will expire at the end of the 2013 season. With the financial demands of the future appearing to be overwhelming, you can be forgiven for thinking it odd that the team would lock up a reliever for that kind of money over the next three years.

That’s not to take anything away from Marshall who has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last two seasons, all while making an astounding 158 appearances. It just seems unnecessary to commit that much money to a pitcher who only found success after dropping a cutter from his repertoire and throwing more than twice as many breaking pitches as fastballs.

The wear and tear on his arm from his preferred pitching arsenal combined with his amount of use over the last two years should raise warning signs as he enters his early thirties. Making matters more head scratching is that the three year deal is being handed to him even though he was already under contract for the coming season.

Let’s imagine a scenario playing out wherein Marshall has another a career year in 2012 that matches or exceeds his 2011 season. Would Marshall really be all that likely to demand more on the open market than what he’s signing for with this extension? In recent memory, only Scott Downs and Joaquin Benoit signed similar free agent deals, but both were for less money despite more extensive track records of success.

With this deal, the Reds seem to be taking all of the risk at a time when they absolutely shouldn’t. It’s possible that by extending Marshall, the Reds see themselves locking up a future closer to take over for Ryan Madson after his contract comes up at the end of this season.

However, I wonder if the team isn’t more financially aware than that. It wouldn’t justifythe premature extension of Marshall, but signing him might signify the team’s understanding of their limitations. Given the amounts of money that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder signed for this off season, and after seeing Ryan Zimmerman’s recent contract extension, perhaps the Reds realize that they won’t be able to keep both Phillips and Votto.

This would also explain the lengths to which the team has gone this off season to put all their chips on the table in a push for success in the NL Central. They traded prospects for Mat Latos, gave up a younger pitcher to bring back Marshall and signed Ryan Madson to a risk averse one year deal. These are the moves of a team that’s ready to compete, and perhaps also a team aware of a limited window of opportunity.

If they fail to take advantage of their opportunity this coming season, the team’s best course of action is likely moving Votto at the trade deadline rather than waiting until the off season or the middle of his walk year. Such an asset on the trade market could bring back the type of haul that the Texas Rangers got when they moved Mark Teixeira to the Atlanta Braves at the trade deadline in 2007. The Rangers received the top three prospects in the Braves system according to Baseball America in Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison, as well as Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones. A year later, Teixeira only managed to bring back Casey Kotchman and Steve Marek from the Los Angeles Angels when the Braves traded him in another deadline deal.

While the rest of the NL Central will continue to hope for the Reds failure, there may be a few other teams out there hoping that Cincinnati finds themselves on the outside looking in come late July.

For a team like the Toronto Blue Jays, long considered to be interested in the acquisition of Votto, who was born and raised nearby, the conversation likely starts with three of the following prospects: Travis d’Arnaud, Jake Marisnick, Anthony Gose, Drew Hutchison, Noah Syndergaard and Dan Norris. It would certainly be a steep price, but one that without a doubt would be a game changer in the AL East.

Of course, all this not only assumes that the Reds won’t be in the playoff hunt by mid summer (a rather large leap considering the moves they made this off season and their competition in the NL Central), but also that the team is unable to keep both Votto and Phillips. No matter what the team’s long term plans are however, I’m afraid it doesn’t explain why they’d lock up an admittedly effective, but ultimately inessential Marshall, a year before he faced free agency.