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Votto takes spotlight in NL Central

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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GOODYEAR, Ariz.

At the end of last season, the most influential figures in the National League Central were Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Joey Votto.

The first four made news this offseason for, in order, a champagne-soaked retirement, a $240 million contract, a $214 million contract, and a successfully appealed positive drug test.

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Then there’s Votto.

“I have no problem falling under the radar,” Votto said over the weekend. “I’m used to it. It’s part of enjoying playing for Cincinnati. We’re a team that can compete but also stay under the radar.”

Don’t let the modesty fool you. In the post-Pujols, post-Prince era, Votto is positioned to be the division’s dominant force for the rest of his tenure with the Reds.

Which begs the question: How long will that be?

Votto, 28, is under contract for only two more seasons, and he is growing increasingly candid about his career ambitions.

For example: During our conversation, he said, “I want to be the best.”

As in, the best player in baseball.

“A guy like Matt Kemp says, ’50-50,’” Votto said, in reference to Kemp’s intent to have the first 50-homer, 50-steal season. “The first thing I think is, ‘How am I going to do better than him?’ That’s just how I am.

“I think it’s a cool goal to have. It requires a lot of time and energy and effort. Whether it’s attainable or not is irrelevant. The fact that I’m chasing it is the only thing that really matters to me.”

For Votto, the notion isn’t farfetched. He was the reigning National League Most Valuable Player at this time last year. He ranks fourth among big-league position players in Wins Above Replacement over the past three seasons, according to FanGraphs.com.

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Votto belongs in any discussion of the game’s elite players, but he would put two different names atop his ballot: Pujols and Troy Tulowitzki. “Frankly, I’m not sure it’s close,” he added. (I would counter that Kemp played his way into the discussion last year with a 39-homer, 126-RBI, 40-steal season in which he won the Gold Glove in center field. But that’s just me.)

Votto is different from Pujols, Tulowitzki and Kemp in one important respect: He’s not signed to a long-term contract. If he maintains his current production, Votto could hit free agency after the 2013 season amid speculation about baseball’s new magic number: $200 million.

At a time when relatively few power hitters are coming onto the open market, Votto could soon be the new infatuation for teams that didn’t sign Pujols or Fielder.

That’s not to say the Reds are resigned to letting Votto walk. “There’s a lot of interest on our part, and I feel the same way on Joey’s part,” owner Bob Castellini told FOXSports.com. “We’ve got two more years legally with Joe, and we’re bound and determined to make it many more years than that. Joey Votto’s got the potential to be one of the greatest baseball players in our time.”

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Votto wouldn’t comment on whether he is open to negotiating during the season, but he recently remarked to Hal McCoy of FOX Sports Ohio, “Prince Fielder sure got a lot of money, didn’t he?” Fielder, of course, never came close to signing an extension with the Milwaukee Brewers and found his riches in Detroit. One source with knowledge of Votto’s plans said the sides aren’t actively exchanging proposals now and that Votto is “in no rush” to start.

That’s not to say Votto has a strong desire to play in a major market. When asked about the appeal of that, he drew a parallel to Pujols leaving the Cardinals. “I think Albert might find — not that I know — that St. Louis might have been a good market as far as him being a star,” Votto said. “Although it’s not a major city, it just feels like a big baseball city.”

If and when his talks with the Reds intensify, it would be reasonable for Votto to ask for more than the seven-year, $154 million contract Adrian Gonzalez received from the Boston Red Sox. That deal begins this year, when Gonzalez turns 30. Votto’s next contract will begin at age 30, and he has a higher career OPS+ than Gonzalez.

The Reds can help their sales pitch by surrounding Votto with top talent — which, Votto said, they already have. The team can further demonstrate that commitment by signing second baseman Brandon Phillips to an extension, which Castellini said he “very much” would like to do. Phillips’ contract is up after this season. “Winning is a priority to me,” Votto said. “Brandon is signed — he’s got a one-year contract. His contract is not an issue. Neither is mine.”

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About the only way for Votto’s status to become a distraction this year would be if a disappointing season for the team gave rise to trade rumors. That’s highly unlikely. The Reds look like NL Central favorites. And with first base prospect Yonder Alonso gone to San Diego in the Mat Latos deal, there’s less incentive for general manager Walt Jocketty to gauge Votto’s trade value.

Jocketty was the GM in St. Louis when Pujols signed his first long-term deal — a seven-year, $100 million contract that proved highly favorable to the Cardinals. By now, it must be apparent to Jocketty that Votto won’t sign for such a “bargain” price. Unless the Reds’ payroll climbs to at least $95 million, it may be difficult for them to keep Votto and fill the remaining roster spots with postseason-caliber talent.

The Reds understand the peril of committing too much of a midsized payroll to one star: They went 0-for-9 in postseason appearances with Ken Griffey Jr. Of Votto’s future in Cincinnati, former Reds right-hander Aaron Harang said, “Few markets can keep that type of player.”

The Rangers, Dodgers and Nationals — competitive clubs with long-term questions at first base — are sure to monitor Votto’s status closely. The Blue Jays will be under intense pressure to pursue Votto if he hits the open market, since he was born and raised in Toronto. But Votto seemed unmoved by the local-boy-makes-good-and-comes-home narrative when I mentioned it to him. “I want to play for a good team,” said Votto, who now makes his offseason home in Florida. “Cincinnati has a good team right now.”

The Reds have a franchise player in his prime along with realistic World Series expectations. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen all the time. Cincinnati fans ought to enjoy this — however long it lasts.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Tigers, Reds, Dodgers, Albert Pujols, Brandon Phillips, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Mat Latos

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