Joey Votto may have played his final game in a Reds uniform. It's hard to imagine, given just how long Votto has been a fixture in Cincinnati, but it's equally hard to imagine the Reds will pick up his $20MM team option for 2024.
Speaking to reporters (including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Cincinnati Enquirer) after the final game of the regular season on Sunday, Votto had little insight to offer about his future with the Reds or in Major League Baseball. “As far as my future, my individual future, I'm still not there yet,” he explained. “I'm just not there.”
It's perfectly understandable that Votto isn't ready to make a decision. The Reds were still alive in the postseason hunt until the final days of the season, and the de facto team captain says he didn't want to think about anything other than the playoff push. More to the point, the first decision isn't his to make; the Reds must choose whether to exercise his $20MM option or pay him a $7MM buyout.
Still, the veteran's comments are telling. The fact that he doesn't have an answer about his future means the possibility of retirement has at least crossed his mind. A player with his talent and track record could certainly find a new deal this offseason, whether with the Reds or another club, but at 40 years old, Votto could be getting ready to hang up his hat. He is coming off two injury-plagued seasons with the worst and second-worst OPS numbers of his career. The six-time All-Star has always been highly competitive, as he mentioned on Sunday. If he no longer feels like he can compete at the highest level, he might prefer to quit before his skills decline any further.
As for the Reds, they have a pair of promising youngsters who could take the reins from Votto next season. Rookie Spencer Steer started 53 games at first in 2023. Overall, he played in 156 contests, leading the team in plate appearances, home runs, and RBI. Among his teammates (min. 150 PA), he finished third with an .820 OPS and a 118 wRC+. Christian Encarnacion-Strand also played a handful of games for the Reds at first base after a midseason call-up. In his first taste of big league action, he slashed .270/.328/.477 with 13 home runs in 63 games.
This is not to say the Reds couldn't make room for Votto next season; when healthy, he was still the team's primary first baseman in 2023. However, if they choose to keep him around next year, it will be for his veteran leadership and because of what he means to the franchise, not because they have a hole to fill at first base.
If Cincinnati doesn't pick up his option, Votto will have to decide if he wants to join fellow veterans Miguel Cabrera and Adam Wainwright in retirement or if he would rather keep playing to pad his potential Hall of Fame resume. Whatever they choose to do, the Reds will have to make a decision within five days of the conclusion of the World Series.