GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- As long as Joey Votto remains without a long-term contract, there will be questions about his future with the Reds. Ditto for Brandon Phillips. For Votto, the issue is magnified in light of fellow first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder signing monster free-agent contracts worth more than $200 million this past offseason -- Pujols with the Angels and Fielder with the Tigers. Votto, who is entering the second year of a three-year, $38 million contract, is widely viewed as one of the next big blockbusters to reach the market when he can become a free agent after the 2013 season. But it's speculation for which he's not ready to participate.
"I'm going to make it pretty simple for just about anybody," Votto said. "I'm going to leave all that to the Reds front office and my agent and myself. I will try to keep it as private as possible. I don't think it's fair to the fans. I don't think it's fair to myself. It's certainly not fair to the team for any of that type of stuff to creep into the season and become a distraction. I plan to make some sort of comment if I happen to sign an extension with the Reds or if I happen to get to the point where I get to free agency." Votto, 28, was the National League Most Valuable Player in 2010 and followed up with a very strong '11. He batted .309 with 29 home runs and 103 RBIs in 161 games. He led the NL in doubles, walks, on-base percentage, batting on the road and hitting with runners in scoring position. Defensively, he also won his first Gold Glove Award.
Someone who doesn't like to make a lot of waves publicly in general, it's the distraction factor off the field that Votto is most abhorrent about when it comes to talking about his contract and future."You know what? I'm human and it is a distraction," Votto said. "As much as players want to say it's not a distraction and it doesn't affect me at all, it's exhausting. And it's a lingering issue. The team knows about it, fans know about it, management knows about it. The bottom line is every player has the right to say yes and no. It's clearly my decision. "Once the public gets a handle on it, it can turn bad, and I don't want that because I'm in a lucky spot. I signed a three-year deal last year. I have another two years on my deal. And I'm in a position where I don't have to comment on contracts because I'm in the midst of one." When sought after Votto spoke, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty declined to comment about contractual issues. Team CEO Bob Castellini acknowledged in January he hoped the club could open extension talks with Votto at some point this season. "It's something we know is a big challenge for us. It certainly is desirable," Castellini said. Then there is the question of which suitors are out there that might shell out upwards of $200 million for Votto. The Angels have Pujols and the Tigers have Fielder. Among the big markets, Mark Teixeira is locked in with the Yankees through 2016, and Adrian Gonzalez is with the Red Sox through '18. That leaves a chance for the Toronto native Votto's hometown Blue Jays to go all in. The Rangers, Dodgers and Cardinals are also lacking long-term options at first base. While a Votto decision is likely two years away, Phillips can be a free agent after this season as he's playing out the $12 million option on his current contract. Negotiations have stalled and could likely continue into the season. Unlike Votto, Phillips has routinely been open about his desire to sign a long-term contract. "I don't want Prince Fielder money or nothing like that," Phillips said on Wednesday. "I just want to be within the other second basemen. That's what I've asked for." Especially after the Cardinals parted with Pujols and the Brewers couldn't retain Fielder, it has been widely assumed by fans and media that the Reds would not be able to win a bidding war for Votto on the open market. In many ways, Phillips' and Votto's situations are entwined. If Cincinnati commits to a long-term contract with the 30-year-old Phillips, it would probably make it that much harder to find enough money in the budget to retain Votto. And if the Reds pass on Phillips this year and he departs as a free agent, and they are unable to re-sign Votto, there goes the very talented right side of the infield. That looming issue seemingly played a part in the Reds' frisky transactions this winter. They made big trades to get starting pitcher Mat Latos and reliever Sean Marshall. The Latos trade required parting with four players, including Votto's heir apparent, Yonder Alonso. Jocketty also signed closer Ryan Madson and outfielder Ryan Ludwick as free agents. "The front office did a tremendous job," Votto noted on Friday. "Sure we took some chances, but we got a pretty good return for the guys we traded and the guys we went out and picked up. I'm very happy about it. I'm excited for the season for sure." Whether anyone likes it or not, even with the influx of new talent, the Reds could be playing on borrowed time as contenders if both Votto and Phillips are not signed to long-term extensions.