When Shin-Soo Choo signed his seven-year, $130 million contract with the Texas Rangers earlier this week, the person on which it put the most pressure to perform might not have been Choo himself, but instead his former teammate, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
Votto, 30, is entering the first year of the contract extension he signed with the Reds last April. It's a far more lucrative deal than Choo got from Texas. Over the next 10 seasons, Cincinnati will pay Votto $225 million. That's the price to keep one of the top two or three first basemen in the game from testing the free-agent market. The deal covers Votto's entire fourth decade on the planet, from age 30 to 40. Some of it will inevitably encompass his decline as a player. Considering his rather fantastic production thus far, with a career .960 OPS (155 OPS+) in 3,790 PA across seven seasons, it's reasonable to assume -- barring injury -- that he'll remain a great-to-elite hitter through at least the first half of the contract and shouldn't completely fall off of a cliff thereafter. The cautionary tale there is Votto's contemporary, Albert Pujols. Two years into a similar mega-contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, he looks like a completely different player than the man who won three National League MVPs in St. Louis during his 20s. Pujols, 33, is suffering through a multi-season bout with plantar fasciitis, a chronic foot condition whose only reliable remedy is extended rest -- something baseball's six-month regular season denies its players. Pujols is far from no longer being an every-day player -- he's hit .272/.337/.477 in his two years with the Angels, which is respectable in a vacuum -- but an .813 OPS starts to look a lot less appealing when a team is paying between $23 and $30 million a year for it, as the Angels will be giving Pujols over the remainder of his deal.
For now, though, the Reds and their fans aren't too concerned with how Votto's numbers will look when he's 37. They're more worried about 2014. With Choo's departure and no movement to replace him by Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty, the weight of responsibility for the Reds' offense again falls heavily on Votto's shoulders. Again the only other regular on the projected roster who looks ready to help him out is rightfielder Jay Bruce. This is generally how things have gone in Cincinnati since 2009: Votto has either an MVP or MVP-finalist season at the plate (150-175 OPS+), Jay Bruce and one other guy have good-to-great years alongside him (120-130 OPS+) and everyone else is average at best and an active detriment to the goal of scoring runs at worst. That "other guy" is different every year: in 2010 it was Scott Rolen (126 OPS+), in 2011 it was Brandon Phillips (118 OPS+), in 2012 it was Ryan Ludwick (130 OPS+) and last year it was Choo (143 OPS+). Outside of Todd Frazier in 2012, no other Red with more than 350 PA had an OPS+ greater than 110 across that four-year period (Ramon Hernandez and Chris Heisey came close in 2011), and outside the 2010 squad, none of them even broke 100 OPS+.
This doesn't mean that those players (Ryan Hanigan, Zack Cozart, Drew Stubbs and Jonny Gomes, among the ones already mentioned like Phillips and Rolen) were worse than league average at their positions in aggregate -- OPS+ isn't positionally adjusted, and most teams would be ecstatic to get 100 OPS+ production out of the middle infield or catcher positions on a routine basis, though Gomes was putting his numbers up primarily in leftfield -- but it does mean that on a year-to-year basis, the modern Reds offense is anchored by Votto, features two other guys very prominently, and then there are a bunch of complementary bats. Next year, those two guys look to be Bruce and Frazier, with Cincinnati hoping that Ludwick comes back from his shoulder injury fully healthy and puts up another season like his 2012 -- but Ludwick turns 36 this July, and his 2012 was the best full season he's posted since his out-of-nowhere 2008. He has always had the capacity to surprise as a hitter, but the chances of him busting out another down-ballot MVP season drop the older he gets.
The Reds have a great rotation and pen for at least the next season. It's hard to forecast how long that will last, especially given a rotation featuring guys like Mat Latos and Homer Bailey who are nearing the end of their arbitration cycles and looking forward to free agency paydays. If they're going to get it done on the other side of the ball, they're going to be leaning on Votto. And there are some problems with that expectation: When you put together a team that can only compete if one of your players hits well enough to be the clear MVP of his league and two or three other things break the right way with your starting lineup (for example, there's still no real succession plan in place for centerfield due to Billy Hamilton's horrendous performance in winter ball so far), well, the blame can't solely fall on Votto if that plan goes awry no matter how much he's being paid. Some of it has to be shared with the people who put all those eggs in that particular basket in the first place.
Cincinnati should be fine, though; after four years Votto's more than used to having to shoulder the load, despite some of the handwringing that comes out of the national media from time to time about his supposed lack of aggressiveness. Votto has the 18th best on-base percentage of all time, regardless of era, and a .541 career slugging percentage in an era where the league average is .396. Anyone who insists the approach that leads to those numbers needs to change (instead of the bats around him) probably doesn't have the best interests of the Cincinnati Reds at heart. Votto doesn't need to pick the Reds up and put them on his shoulders; he has already had them there for four years. What he needs is a little bit more help. Now that Shin-Soo Choo's gone to Texas, he's going to have to find it elsewhere.