In a game decided by head-to-head match-ups and individual accomplishments, it's easy to make too much about one player. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder? Runaway winners of the Central. The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols? Going to have a tough time making the playoffs.
But if you ever need a way to ground yourself, remember Joey Votto and the 2012 Cincinnati Reds. Votto played his last game for the Reds on July 15. Since then, Cincinnati has gone 33-16, which is the best record in the majors over that stretch. In the six-plus weeks the Reds have been without Votto, they started Miguel Cairo at first base 13 times. Cairo's OPS is four points higher than Votto's on-base percentage.
Votto's returning, though, and he's bringing his freaky, new, OBP-monster ways back to a Reds team with a commanding lead in the NL Central. This raises the obvious question: With Votto back, are the Reds the best team in the majors? They opened up the biggest divisional lead in baseball without Votto, so it's at least reasonable to suggest that with him back, they're something of a juggernaut.
Before the season, the Reds weren't obvious favorites. Some prognosticators liked the Cardinals, and some liked the Brewers. Since then, though, we've learned a few things:
- Johnny Cueto sure seems to have an ability to avoid home runs, which might make him the best possible pitcher for the Reds and Great American Ballpark
- After some initial struggles, Mat Latos settled in nicely and became the cost-controlled, top-of-the-rotation pitcher the Reds were counting on
- Aroldis Chapman found the fountain of command and became one of the most dominant relievers in history, surrounded by a deep corps of setup men
- Todd Frazier isn't just going to be passable, he's going to be a viable middle-of-the-order hitter
- Ryan Ludwick is good again, for whatever reason, and he might be the bargain of the offseason
- The Reds will have a healthy rotation, with just one start going to a pitcher not in the rotation to start the season
We know all of this now. Really, the only thing that's gone horribly wrong for the Reds this season has been the struggling Drew Stubbs. Add up all the surprises and pleasant developments, and you have a Reds team that certainly would have been favored for the Central if we had the gift of foresight.
And now they get Votto back. It's not even the same Votto who won the MVP in 2010; he's making fewer outs and hitting for as much power as he ever has. Going from what was essentially a Scott Rolen/Miguel Cairo platoon to Votto is like going from a Polystation 3 to a Playstation 3. Also, the Playstation 3 comes with a piece of delicious pie.
They could be the best team in baseball. The Nationals have a better overall record, but they're about to lose Stephen Strasburg. The best competition for the Votto-aided Reds, at least on paper, is the Rangers. Possibly a healthy, non-scrambling Yankees team. Or maybe the Tigers with Doug Fister back. Or … hell, all of the contenders are good. It's a pretty silly exercise to split their individual atoms to see who is the theoretical best.
If I had to choose one, though, knowing what we know now, it'd be the Reds. They were excellent without Votto. They'll be better with him. It's easy to make too much about one player, but it's pretty hard to make too much about Joey Votto. I was scrambling to get this written before the Reds game started on Tuesday, but I couldn't get there. Votto already has a hit. That's about right.