TORONTO – Established superstars living through rebuilds can often find themselves in an awkward spot, their high-level performances disappearing into the ether as the core around them turns over, with young players taking their lumps while acclimating to the big-leagues. That’s why, typically, the standard procedure for clubs is to turn as many veteran players as possible into prospects lest they waste peak-year value on a present that’s all about the future.
The Cincinnati Reds have certainly gone that route over their seasons of pain in 2015 and ’16, trading away Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips for youngsters just starting to make an impact. Yet amid the reset and despite regular speculation about his place, Joey Votto remains an outlier to some degree in terms of age, production, salary and his status as one of the game’s elite players. Some of the best years of his career have disappeared against the losses.
To a certain degree the Toronto-born slugger controls his fate thanks to the full no-trade clause included in the $225-million, 10-year extension that runs through 2023 he signed back in April 2012. But teams can still find ways to move players they don’t want – Vernon Wells waived his no-trade when the Blue Jays dealt him to Anaheim in January 2011, for instance – so Votto’s commitment isn’t fleeting.
The 33-year-old has lived through some of the worst of the rebuild, and with the Reds off to a surprising 24-26 start after Monday night’s 17-2 thumping from the Blue Jays, is optimistic his team has turned the corner.
“I think we’re getting exciting now, so that’s good. I think our team is really becoming an exciting team to watch and I’m really loving playing with these guys,” said Votto. “As far as the last few years, I do have a responsibility to do my part, I have to do my job. I can’t just mail it in, collect cheques and be happy with that. I feel obligated to play as well as I can and perform at a very high level and I think the past couple of years were examples of that. I feel obligated to do that going forward and I’m motivated to do that.
“The good thing is that we’ve got a lot of younger players on the team that are always willing to put in extra work and always willing to think about getting better,” he continued. “There’s something infectious about that, there’s something about being around that sort of energy. If you ask any player, especially an older player, they feed off that, gain something from that. I certainly feel that way.”
Given that the Reds lost 93 games in 2015 and 94 last year, the boost is understandable. In 2013, they went 90-72 and lost to Pittsburgh 1-0 in the wild-card game and it’s been nothing but decline leading into rebuild since.
But two months into the new season, there’s a developing core that, perhaps, could grow back into a contender with an outfield of Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Billy Hamilton, second baseman Jose Peraza, shortstop Zack Cozart (a pending free agent) and third baseman Eugenio Suarez complementing Votto in a potent lineup.
The starting pitching is a mess with Homer Bailey, Brandon Finnegan and Anthony DeSclafani on the disabled list, but they’re working their way back and are expected to return later in the season. If they can stay healthy and arms like Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen progress, the Reds may not be as far as off as it might have seemed the past two years.
“(Votto) had an awareness that 10 years anywhere, but certainly in a place that’s not a major market, there’s a chance there’s going to be some up and down over the course of his tenure,” said manager Bryan Price. “He’s never had a foot out the door wanting to go anyplace else, as far as I know. From my understanding he’s been pretty vocal about wanting to stay in Cincinnati and be a part of the rebuild and be here when we resurface towards or at the top of the division and get back into post-season play.
“But in order to make it a little bit more palatable to anybody of his stature and his experience level, you have to see it, you can’t just hear about it,” Price continued. “What he’s seeing is what our front office and ownership have talked about, that we are going to have a better team in Cincinnati, it’s something that’s worth waiting for and I think that’s on the horizon.”
In the interim, Votto continues to be one of the toughest outs in the majors with a career on-base percentage of .424 and among the game’s most dangerous hitters with a career slugging percentage of .537.
A second-round pick in 2002 who works relentlessly to fully leverage his talents, Votto drew praise from Price for the example he sets for his teammates by taking nothing for granted. A Gold Glove winner in 2011, Votto is a better defender now, according to his manager, citing his drive to keep improving as a key component of his clubhouse presence.
“As I’ve gotten older, I think about how I fit into a winning culture,” said Votto. “I haven’t been part of a World Series team, and it’s something I’m really excited to hopefully be a part of. There have been a lot of great players that haven’t had the opportunity to win a championship, that’s something I really hope I get to be a part of one day, because it sure looks fun.”
Having survived the tear-down, Votto is front and centre in the build-up.