Votto’s Future Uncertain as Reds Fight for NL Wild Card Spot

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For Joey Votto, the future is right now.

Recently returned from the injury list after nursing soreness in his surgically repaired left shoulder, Votto and his Cincinnati Reds are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot for the first time in a non-COVID-impacted season since 2013.

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Beyond that is the resolution of his contract situation. Votto is nearing the end of the guaranteed portion of his 10-year, $225 million deal, by far the richest in Reds history. For next season, the club owns a $20 million option with a $7 million buyout.

Votto, who just turned 40, told Sportico he wants to keep playing, and his choice is to finish his career in Cincinnati. “Oh, yeah. I do [want to keep playing]. Hopefully it will be here,” he said. “I’d love to be a one-team player my entire career, but you never know what’s going to happen, because you only have so much control.”

He has a lifetime .295 batting average and 2,128 base hits, but Votto’s offensive numbers have been deteriorating for years because of injuries. Considering the good, young players the Reds are amassing, there should be no real reason for the team to exercise that option. The Reds have the eighth lowest payroll in Major League Baseball at $99.6 million. Votto earned a team-high $22.5 million for luxury tax purposes, according to Spotrac—22.6% of their payroll. Hunter Renfroe is second on the Reds’ list at $1.98 million.

Aside from Votto, only seven other players on the active roster are earning $1 million or more. Kids like Jonathan India, Jake Fraley, Tyler Stephenson, TJ Friedl, Elly de la Cruz, Spencer Steer and Matt McLain are all earning around the $770,000 minimum based on their service time this year in the Major Leagues.

“There are five guys I can name who are making minimum right now, [and] I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re All-Stars next year,” Votto said. “They’re all under team control for a long time. They’re proud to represent this team and this city, and that’s important.”

Harrison Bader, just picked up off waivers, is being paid the rest of the year by the New York Yankees, and is costing the Reds a pro-rated portion of the minimum. Sound familiar? Aaron Hicks has the same deal with the Orioles.

It’s the way the Reds do business. Unlike Hicks, Bader will be a free agent this winter. Votto will be one as well, if the Reds don’t pick up his option.

“I recognize that you don’t know how long you’re going to play in one city or in one uniform,” Votto said. “I’ve been with this team my entire career. If this is the last stretch, I’m not sure, although this has been golden.”

But right now, there’s the pursuit of a playoff spot. The Reds open a three-game series with a moribund New York Mets team at Citi Field on Friday night. With barely two weeks to go, the Reds are embroiled in a five-team race for the final two of the three National League Wild Card slots.

The Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, San Francisco Giants and Reds are all just a few games apart. The benchmark for the final team making the playoffs in the NL should be last year’s 87 games won by the Philadelphia Phillies, who lost the World Series in six games to the Houston Astros.

The mantra this year has been mouthed often by Arizona manager Torey Lovullo.

“Just get in and good things can happen,” he said.

These Reds were in first place in the NL Central as late as Aug. 2. But the team went 10-16 in August, sending them spinning out of that race and into this Wild Card tussle. The competing teams must play almost .700 ball the rest of the way to qualify.

It’s better than nothing, Votto said; in the old 10-team playoff system, the Reds would already be toast. They made the playoffs after the 60-game pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but that doesn’t count, Votto said. “Heck, 16 teams made [the playoffs],” he said.

The playoff field expanded to 12 teams for the first time in a non-COVID season last year, with a three-game Wild Card series played solely in the ballpark of teams with the better record. However the Reds didn’t sniff the playoffs, finishing 25 games behind the Phillies, with 100 losses.

When the Reds broke from spring training in Goodyear, Ariz., this past March, everyone was expecting the same 100-loss results.

In May, as young, impactful players began to trickle up through the system, Votto addressed the team in a clubhouse meeting. He doesn’t do that often, he recalled, but that was the moment. His message: “If we get to .500, we’ve got a lot of kids from the minor leagues coming, and we’re going to take off.”

The message was heard. “To their credit, they thought they were going to do well with or without help,” Votto added. “It’s a group that was excited to compete, excited to do better, and said, ‘We’re going to show some people some things.’”

They reached .500 again for the first time since the first week of the season on June 19, and then indeed took off and nestled in first place for most of the next 20 days.

Although Votto continued to struggle with injuries and is batting around .200, a shell of his former great self, he felt the change in the club’s dynamic.

“It’s energized me,” he said. “I love playing with these guys. They give me [crap] all the time in the best of ways. That’s exactly what teammates do for each other, letting them know they care.

“As far as coming back from injuries, that’s sucked. It’s really been a taxing year in that regard. Wanting to compete and help the team while juggling the rehab and comeback process hasn’t been ideal.”

It’s been a long haul for Votto as far as winning is concerned. The Reds finished 90-72 under Dusty Baker in 2013. Baker was fired by then general manager Walt Jocketty after losing a Wild Card Game to Pittsburgh. They were a star-studded club back then, with a great pitching staff and the likes of Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips. Votto batted .305 for that team with a league-league 135 walks and .435 on base percentage.

After the Baker firing, the Reds were 141 games under .500 through 2022, including 85 games under in four-plus seasons with Brian Price as manager before he was fired 18 games into the 2018 season. Last year, they hit rock bottom at 62-100 playing for current manager David Bell. This year, they’re a handful of games over .500.

Baker went on to Washington and Houston, where he currently has the Astros in position to win their second consecutive World Series. The Reds have struggled. Votto said he loved working with Jocketty, but really loved playing for Dusty.

“He was the leader, the captain of the ship,” Votto said. “We were competitive for three or four years, but didn’t reach our championship goals. It’s been a tough decade from 2014 to last year. It’s been a lean stretch, and to see us in a race for the playoffs right now being driven by this young group of nationally unknown players coming to prominence, it’s been a fun experience.”

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