MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Votto at crossroads as Reds eye resurgence

'We're happy to quietly sneak up on everyone,' 10-year veteran says

Votto at crossroads as Reds eye resurgence

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It was a mere two springs ago that plenty of people wondered if Joey Votto could still be great. Votto, ever the realist, understood the doubt.

"So if I've got this massive contract in my backpack and I'm carrying it around and not performing as well as everyone wants or expects, that's really going to bother me," Votto said Thursday morning. "That's going to sit with me."

Oh, that. Votto's 10-year, $225 million contract extension in 2012 was the largest in Reds history and still the seventh biggest ever given to a Major League player.

That it overlapped with two seasons, 2012 and '14, in which Votto missed 151 games because of injuries, prompted some to wonder if Cincinnati had made a smart investment. He'd hit a pedestrian (for him) .255 in '14 with a career-low .409 slugging percentage, while playing in just 62 games.

Again, Votto understood the skepticism.

"You've got $200 million hanging over your head, you want to make sure you're not a huge load on the organization," Votto said. "I've always been pretty aware of how I've played and my value to the team."

Outlook: Votto, 1B, CIN

It all seems like noise now, doesn't it? In the past two seasons, Votto has proven again that he's among the best baseball players on the planet.

In the 2015-16 seasons, Votto led the Majors with a .993 OPS, slightly ahead of Mike Trout's .991. He also led the Majors in on-base percentage (.447) in those two seasons.

And now, after 10 seasons with the Reds, Votto's numbers -- for instance, a .961 career OPS -- are so dazzling that the Hall of Fame seems within reach. He's not there yet, but at 33, he's closing in.

Votto's 47.3 career Wins Above Replacement is well below the 66.4 WAR average for Hall of Famers. But four All-Star appearances, the 2010 National League MVP Award and four other top seven NL MVP Award finishes have carved out a special place for him.

Only this isn't the time to ask Votto about any of that. He deals in numbers, in certainty. Hall of Fame voting is, well, uncertain.

"I'm so far off that, I don't think it's worth thinking about," Votto said. "Things have crossed my path before, so I'm not going to pretend that I have blinders on. I'm just too far away, and there's too many good players I'm playing against that have built up fantastic resumes that I'm nowhere near.

"Something as subjective as the Hall of Fame can be elusive and drive you nuts. I'm going to try and avoid thinking about it too much. I'd like to think I'm just passing the halfway point. I would hope to think I've got a long way to go, and I can continue to play well.

"I think [about] sharing something collectively like winning a World Series, aging well, earning my salary, having people look back and be satisfied with my performance and having fans in Cincinnati and my teammates be grateful that I got to play for them and with them."

Votto is at an interesting crossroads. In the four years since the Reds last made the playoffs, the franchise has begun a reconstruction, trading away some iconic players: Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman.

Votto on Phillips' absence

Votto looks around the Reds' clubhouse and sees a new generation of Cincinnati baseball: Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler and Tucker Barnhart.

"I knew that sort of thing would be part of the package of signing a long-term contract," Votto said. "It's part of the process. Some of the guys I developed a long-term relationship with, it was disappointing. At the same time, I want the best for them, and I certainly want the best for the team. I'm going to see them. I hope they do well where they are, and we do well here.

"I think collectively we're optimistic. We're excited to see where we go over the next year or two. I think we have really high aspirations. We're not the big-market team, but we're happy to quietly sneak up on everyone."

Votto's 2016 season featured some of the best -- and some of the worst -- baseball he has played. On June 5, he was hitting .221 with a .765 OPS. In Votto's final 101 games, he hit .382 with 19 home runs, 25 doubles and a 1.102 OPS.

Top 10 Right Now: Votto

Asked about the slow start, Votto said, "I was striking out a bunch and wasn't hitting well against left-handers. Those go hand in hand with my swing."

Votto thanked Reds manager Bryan Price, a left-hander, for throwing him hours of batting practice and helping reset his swing.

"I felt no satisfaction until the end of the year," Votto said. "I could be vain in saying this, but I look at the scoreboard, and there's a certain level where I'm satisfied personally. If you spend the entire year, and you're looking up and you're short, constantly short, it's an accumulation. I wasn't satisfied. It's just not good enough until the end of the year."

Votto still wasn't happy with parts of his game, especially defense and baserunning, and that was the focus of his offseason. He showed up at the Reds' complex early and went back to work.

"I really don't like talking about training," he said. "Everybody talks about it, and then you see the exact same or worse performance. There was definitely a cause-and-effect between my Spring Training preparation and early season preparation and my slow starts. I'm going to try and mitigate that."

Good chance he will. And then some.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.