Photo Credit: Sideonecincy on Flickr, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
I have a lot of mixed emotions about yesterday. On one hand, I want to be furious. I want to lash out. I want to ridicule and shame those responsible for my frustration. I want to turn back time and right the wrongs. In some ways, I’m still in my bargaining stage.
And yet, there’s a different feelingt: a part of me that’s already accepted this fate. I knew this was coming – maybe not this year, but certainly by next. The writing was on the wall, the only question was whether we’d decipher it in time. All things must end – even the best of things.
Yesterday, the Cincinnati Reds announced they would be declining Joey Votto’s $20 million option for the 2024 season. The Reds Twitter/X account sent out a 101-word post via President of Baseball Operations Nick Krall to memorialize the moment. It marked the unceremonious end to an otherwise extraordinary career – at least in Cincinnati.
Yes, it appears the Reds are ready to move on from the 40-year-old Votto. 2135 hits, 353 home runs, and seven times leading the National League in on-base percentage later, the Reds – for the first time in seventeen years – will be without their superstar slugger. In good times and the far more frequent bad times, Votto has been the singular bright spot for the Reds – the brilliant star in the middle of an inky black sky. Today though, the sky has shifted, and Votto’s star no longer projects as prominently. There are other stars in the sky now, and though none glow with Votto’s luminance (yet), the Reds have decided it’s time to give them their space to shine.
If you thought the Reds embraced the youth movement in 2023, just wait til next year. Right now, it appears at least 3/5ths of the infield will be second-year players. Of the returning Reds pitchers who made at least four starts in 2023, seven are under the age of 26, and it’s a pretty good bet that at least four are in the Reds starting rotation to begin the season. With 184 games under his belt, 25-year-old Spencer Steer is practically an elder statesman for this team.
With all of that youth, you’d think there would be room for some geriatric wisdom in the clubhouse – or some veteran smarts, to put it nicely. You’d think there’d be a spot for Votto to continue to be the boisterous locker room presence, the good-natured goofball, the hard-working, professional leader that he is. Nope. According to Krall, financials weren’t the reason the team declined Votto’s pricey option – it was at-bats.
With all of these youngsters in need of playing time, the intersection of need and opportunity just wasn’t there for Votto. As much as it’s going to sting watching Votto wear another team’s colors and play in another city, it would have been just as painful to watch Joey wither away on the bench. A handful of pinch-hit at-bats isn’t how Votto wants to end his career – and we shouldn’t want that for him either. Joey wants to play – maybe not every day, but at least semi-regularly – and the Reds owe it to him to see if he can get that chance.
No matter what, that chance wasn’t going to be in Cincinnati. Not with all these young, up-and-comers needing to play every day. And if you want to rail against the Reds front office and ownership for failing to build a winner around Votto, for failing to ever advance in the playoffs during the seventeen years he gave to this city, for continuously embarrassing Reds fans all over the country as Votto did his absolute best to make us proud day in and day out, go for it. I sure won’t stop you.
And look: Reds ownership deserves it. Players like Votto don’t grow on trees. He’s the once-in-a-generation small-market superstar who’s impact off the field nearly eclipsed his greatness on it. That’s how beloved Votto is in Cincinnati. And sadly, all the love of an entire city can’t overcome an avalanche of poor personnel decisions, and for that, we have no one to thank but the Reds and their perpetually inept decision-makers.
Was it Joey Votto’s fault when the Reds signed Mike Moustakas to a bloated contract that they were still paying off in 2023 while Moustakas played elsewhere? Nope. What about when the Reds traded Johnny Cueto to the Royals to three pitching prospects who all flamed out almost immediately? Surely not. What about when the Reds decided to extend Homer Bailey over Cueto in the first place? Joey isn’t responsible for that. How about for the Reds sickeningly low and uncompetitive payrolls over the years? Can’t put that on Votto either.
I could go on and on. The Reds have been – inarguably – the worst franchise in professional baseball since the millennium. They have the 7th worst winning percentage in all of baseball since 2000 and are the only team in baseball not to have advanced in the playoffs during that span. Even the team with the worst winning percentage, the Kansas City Royals, managed to win a World Series in that time frame before returning to their lowly ways.
The results are the results, and they're inexcusable. That cannot be denied. What the Castellinis have done since taking over the Reds in 2005 is nothing short of malpractice. They deserve all the criticism – and yet, the criticism over the Votto move is a little much.
You can be as mad as you want about the past, but moving on from Votto is about the future. Placing more blame on the Reds owners and front office for letting Votto walk is shortsighted. Sure, they wasted Votto’s career – and there’s no wiping that particular slate clean, I get it – but the Reds won’t get better by trying to atone for previous mistakes. Strip away all the nostalgia and sentimentality: Votto, since 2020, is a .232 hitter who hasn’t played more than 129 games in a season. Yes, he hit 36 home runs in 2021. In those other three seasons since 2020? 11, 11, and 14.
No matter which way you slice it, Votto doesn’t make sense on the 2024 Reds. The Reds had most of their success in 2023 by leaning into their youth and athleticism. That same recipe helped get the Arizona Diamondbacks to the World Series. For all of Votto’s numerous and wonderful qualities, youthful and athletic just don’t apply.
And it’s disingenuous to say the Reds never did anything for Votto either. There are 255 million reasons to disagree with that statement. It feels slightly gross to distill the entire Votto/Reds relationship down to pure financial transactions, but let’s get real: Votto signed a contract to do a job, and the Reds compensated him for it – and quite well too, I might add. The fact that it’s all going down this way stings, but after years of watching the Reds hang on to a hobbled Ken Griffey Jr. or a past-his-prime Adam Dunn or a washed-up Homer Bailey or an overpaid Jay Bruce, we should be throwing a parade considering the Reds finally made a sensible personnel decision – even if it means letting a franchise figurehead leave.
But smart baseball or not, there’s no denying the extreme mix of emotions that Reds fans everywhere are sorting through as this news reaches their ears or eyes. It’s all incredibly unfair, and yet extremely fitting. The greatest Red of this millennium was held back by the worst stretch of Reds baseball in their entire 142-year history. And now, once the team appears ready to emerge from that bleakness, there’s no more room for their former mainstay.
It’s a tragedy that the Reds couldn’t make Votto a winner, but the bigger tragedy would be holding on when there’s nothing left for either side. The phrase “if you love something, set it free” always seemed contradictory and simplistic to me, but in this case, it seems appropriate. Votto’s place in Cincinnati is cemented forever, but the man deserves the opportunity to go out on his own terms. Joey Votto was always one to walk to the beat of his own drum, and now, he gets to write his own ending to his story. For such an idiosyncratic player, it’s perplexingly apropos.
Happy trails Joey, and thank you for everything.