Remember the Votto Window? It seems crazy now, but there once was a time when it was an accepted reality that after the 2013 season, Joey Votto would leave the Reds via free agency and sign with a big market, big money team. And that was if the Reds didn’t trade him for a load of prospects first. Sure, Walt Jocketty would occasionally pay some lip service to the idea that the Reds were going to try their best to sign Votto long term, but I don’t think I was alone in thinking that he was blowing smoke up Reds fans’ collective rear end. After all, it’s not like he could just come right out and state the obvious fact that there was no way the Reds could afford to pay Votto what he could earn on the open market.
Then, in early April of 2012, just days before Opening Day, the impossible happened and the Reds signed Votto to a ten year, $218 million deal (plus an option for the far off, science-fictiony sounding year 2024). The legends were true: there really was money in the banana stand.
That was two full baseball seasons ago. A lifetime. And yet, that deal hasn’t even started yet. Votto’s blistering start to 2012, his devastating knee injury and long road to recovery, the emotional roller coaster of the 2012 playoffs, the great "What Does Votto Get Paid To Do, Anyhow?" debate of 2013, and the huge letdown that marked the end of the last season all happened on Votto’s original deal, the one he signed in December of 2010. The one that bought out his three arbitration years. We’re so used to the idea of Votto being one of the most highly paid players in baseball that it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t been paid one cent of that $218 million yet.
But what if the banana stand had been empty? What if Votto had decided that he wanted to try his hand at free agency? What if he decided he disliked Cincinnati and wanted to live on one of the coasts? What if, for any one of a number of plausible reasons, that deal hadn’t gotten done? What would be the current state of the Reds as an organization, and what would the rest of Votto’s career look like?
Coming off the regular season success of 2012, it seems like a safe assumption that Jocketty and Castellini would have felt confident in the Reds’ ability to compete for the division in 2013, so they probably wouldn’t have traded Votto away last offseason. And at the 2013 trade deadline, the Reds were 6 games out of first place but still in firm possession of the second wild card spot. They were not in a position to trade him away then either. So they probably would have kept Votto all the way to the end of his contract. The Votto Window would have just slammed shut.
So for the Reds front office, on top of all the other questions they have going into 2014, they would also be tasked with replacing Votto’s production in the lineup. Since the Mat Latos trade predated the Votto deal, we can assume that it still would have happened regardless, so one-time presumptive Votto replacement Yonder Alonso is long gone. Is there a player, or even several players, that the Reds would be able to acquire via trade or free agency that could replace what Votto gives them? What moves could the Reds make to fill that hole in the lineup?
Of course, the other option would be to acknowledge that the Reds missed their window to compete and start selling off parts and stockpiling prospects. If it were me, I’d give Jay Bruce the extension he was asking for last year and rebuild the team with him as its public face. Pretty much everything else can go. I’d keep Tony Cingrani, Billy Hamilton, maybe Mike Leake plus a few other odds and ends, including of course those parts of the minor league system that are worth saving. But it would be a youth movement for sure and the most depressing offseason in a very long time.
The other interesting question in this alternate-reality scenario is what happens to Joey Votto. Is he still a ten-year, $200 million plus kind of player? Would his knee injury and subsequent power dip give other teams pause? Would his dismal defense in 2013 cause teams to look at him as a "classic DH," thus limiting his appeal to American League teams only and dividing his potential suitors in half? Which big market teams are even looking for a big hitting, questionable fielding first baseman?
This is, indeed, the darkest timeline. For as frustrating as the end of the 2013 season was, how much worse would it have been if we were watching it knowing that we were watching the end of an era of Reds baseball? How much more gut-wrenching would that wild card game have been had we known that we were not just watching the likely end of Shin-Soo Choo’s and Bronson Arroyo’s Reds careers, but Votto’s as well? So it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider where the Reds – and Votto himself – would be right now had their assumed original trajectory played out. But thankfully, it’s just a thought experiment and not reality. I know many people believe that deals similar to the one the Reds bestowed on Votto are always a bad idea, and certainly there’s plenty of evidence to support that line of thinking. But the reality is that they’re necessary to keep players of that caliber, and thankfully the Reds aren’t faced with a decision between trying to replace an irreplaceable player and holding a fire sale so soon after emerging from a decade of irrelevance.