Poor Joey Votto is Stuck on a Team Going Nowhere
Joey Votto, one of baseball's best hitters, is stuck in Cincinnati forever.
In Harlan Ellison's short story "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet," he describes the last Jabberwock, a monster kept in a cage by the monks who revere it. Though the monks pamper the creature and work assiduously to find it a mate, "What they do not know is that the Jabberwock has sentience, it is a thinking, feeling creature for all its awesome menace. What they do not know is that the Jabberwock thinks, what it wishes. The Jabberwock wishes it were dead."
Without going to the irresponsible extreme of suggesting Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto no longer wishes to be on the planet—in fact, he insists he is pretty darned happy with his lot—his plight is like the Jabberwock's. One of the best hitters in the game today, as well as all time, with his career on-base percentage of .424 not only best among active hitters but also thirteenth all time—he ranks just below such ancient luminaries as Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, and Jimmie Foxx—he is too a fearsome monster stuck in a gilded cage. Having been selected by the Reds in the second round of the 2002 draft, an accident compounded by his signing a long-term contract and insisting on enforcing his no-trade clause, Votto, now a little less than three weeks from turning 33, will likely spend his entire career with a team stuck at the bottom of the standings.
It seems cosmically unfair that Alcides Escobar, through very little fault of his own, has had roughly four times the postseason plate appearances that Votto has had. The Reds have gone to the postseason three times during Votto's tenure, in 2010, 2012, and 2013, never rising above the Division Series round. Since their loss in the wild-card game in 2013, it's been three straight losing seasons. Though the 2016 team has played better of late—25-20 in July and August after going 29-51 through the end of June—and is no longer in danger of losing 100 games for the first time since 1982, a rapid return to contention seems unlikely. The farm system, though somewhat improved by the trading of veterans going back to last season, and the necessary complements to Votto are probably not present.
This spring, it seemed as if Votto might be going the way of the rest of the team. He got off to an uncharacteristically weak start, hitting .213/.330/.404 through the end of May. Since then, though, he's been himself and more. In fact, he's turned into Ted Williams. In 52 games going back to June 23 he has hit .402/.514/.649. This month he's hitting .438. Perversely, all his hitting really accomplishes is retarding Cincinnati's position in the first round of next year's draft.
Votto is signed through the rest of time or 2024; there is a team option for that year that one expects will be bought out, but at minimum he's tied up through his age-39 season. There have been and will continue to be rumors that a contender will pick him up for September—that contract is certain to slide through waivers—but it's uncertain that any team will want to make an expensive commitment ($25 million a pop beginning in 2018) to an aging player, no matter how good, and even less certain that Votto would approve a transfer. "I absolutely love playing here," he said last winter. "I don't think of myself as anything other than a Cincinnati Red. It's one of the really cool things about having a no-trade clause. I'm one of the rare players who has that. I get to stay a Cincinnati Red."
And so, like the Jabberwock, there he stays, current major-league king of reaching base and shut out of October, like Collins, Speaker, and Foxx but not like them: They played in multiple World Series. It's possible Votto will play in none.