The Votto Question

There is a lot of speculation on what direction Cincinnati is headed right now after a disappointing 76-86 season. One thing that is for sure is that how well Joey Votto comes back from an injury plagued 2014 will do a lot in determining the Reds chances of returning to the post season.

The upcoming Reds spring training will have questions abound as they prepare the opening day roster. That is typical of any team coming off a losing record, especially when they entered the previous season with high hopes of challenging for another post season appearance. There is uncertainty in both the bullpen and the back end of the rotation. With the recent deal to bring in Marlin Byrd, the lineup appears set, but ironically this is where the number one question looms: What can be expected of Joey Votto?

My, what a difference a few seasons can make in a baseball player’s career. It wasn’t long before opening day of 2012 when the announcement was made that the team had finished a deal with the 2010 MVP that locked him up for an extra ten years and made him one of a handful of members in the $200 million contract club. He was a major contributor to Cincinnati’s first taste of postseason action in fifteen years and perhaps there was some pressure to ink the deal with a star homegrown in the Reds’ system. First base is a position with above-average longevity and the market was set from a couple of other huge deals to Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, so the amount was no surprise. The surprise was that Cincinnati ponied up a deal generally previously reserved for larger markets.

Any time a team commits that much money to an athlete over a decade there is risk. At the onset it appeared that Votto’s contract was a little safer that the other two because he’s a few years younger than Pujols and his physique indicated better conditioning than Fielder. Now three years later all three of those deals appear regrettable. Pujols’s three seasons calling the pitcher-friendly Angels Stadium of Anaheim home have produced the three lowest on-base and slugging percentages of his career. Fielder hit well in Detroit, but the Tigers dealt him away after a couple of years to Texas who saw him play in only 42 games while drawing $24 million last season.

Then there’s Votto. Buyer’s remorse didn’t set in immediately in Cincinnati because he was a front-runner for another MVP award before a meniscus tear in his knee cost him 50 games in 2012. He came back to finish the season and even though he didn’t live up to his standards he did manage to reach base over 40% of the time while playing at less than 100%. Overall the Cincinnati nation was pretty satisfied because the team won more regular season games than any edition of the franchise since the historic Big Red Machine swept through 1976 postseason. Their loss in the NLDS was disappointing and Giants pitching challenged him more than they probably would have a healthy Votto, but he still hit .389 AVG/.500 OBP in that series despite having nary an RBI or extra base hit.

Perhaps he had something to prove the next season and prove he did by appearing in all 162 games with all but one of them starts. If he did lay to rest questions on his durability it was only temporary because injury limited him to 62 games last year. His contract is back-loaded and the ramp up doesn’t even reach $20 million until 2016. Now Cincinnati is on the hook for another $213 million over the next nine years as he’s coming off a season with only six home runs.

Perhaps it’s time to back up and look at the big picture. Any time a team’s best hitter has a season sabotaged by injury is cause for concern, but in Cincinnati it is magnified by the size of Votto’s contract which of course does not have any direct influence on his physical integrity. Also, the best guesses going forward are not from baseball statisticians, but the medical team with which he has been working. The 2012 meniscus injury has not reared its head since and the quad injuries of last year are not expected to be career-threatening. Actually there was some talk that he was trying to make it back onto the field in 2014 which did not happen. Whether it was because of readiness or reluctance to risk another injury in a lost season is only known by Votto and the Reds’ front office.

He’s now 31 years old, no spring chicken by professional baseball standards, but there’s good reason to believe he’s still has a lot left in the tank. The team would probably be better off if he were given a few days off, but there should be no complaints if he gets around 150 starts and is available to pinch hit in the other games. Actually, in his MVP season he played in only 150 games. In five regular season games that year that were his first starts after missing at least one game he went for a combined 12-20 with five walks and three homers.

Votto has never duplicated the home run or RBI total he put up in 2010. That can be blamed more on opponents’ pitching and protection behind him than on his ability. These are major league pitchers he’s facing and when they are given familiarity along with latitude to issue walks generously they can keep any hitter’s HR/RBI totals low. The first thing they did was reduce the outside pitches that he can push over the left field wall. Instead they are often throwing him ball four; before last season Votto led the NL in walks for three consecutive years including 2012 when he played in only 111 games.

Perhaps some Reds fans feel that he needs to be more aggressive at the plate however that might be short-sighted. There have probably not been many matchups at the major league level where the hitter came out ahead by swinging at more offerings on the pitcher’s terms. When healthy Votto offers a rare combination of power and selectivity that makes him a formidable opponent any time he steps in the batter’s box, regardless of his RBI total at the time. Should he return to good health this season there could be an interesting dynamic in the Cincinnati lineup now that right-handers Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco have emerged as legitimate mid-lineup hitters and are available to bat behind him.

The final verdict has not been decided on whether the money invested in Votto was wise or not, but as of right now the conservative juror has good reason to say “I told you so”. Should he remain in Cincinnati the remainder of his career his employer will probably be happy to finish his contract by the time he reaches 40, but they knew that going into the deal and the extra years were needed to get the deal done. Though Votto is on the backside of thirty, there’s still time for him to return dividends. With such a high percentage of their team payroll tied up on one player one thing for sure is that the Reds have hooked their wagon to him for now. In spite of injuries over the past few years he should still have some productive seasons left. Cincinnati’s big deal in the offseason returned a 37 year-old outfielder for a pitching prospect so the signal has been sent that they are still in “win-now” mode despite coming off a 76-86 campaign. Votto’s bat in 2015 will go a long way in determining whether that is the proper mode or not.


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