Corner topic: Votto, Frazier under scrutiny in Cincy
First baseman hopes knee is in top shape; third baseman takes on everyday role
CINCINNATI -- One corner of the 2013 Reds infield holds the cornerstone of the franchise, first baseman Joey Votto. The other side contains third baseman Todd Frazier, who helped hold the infield foundation together when it was showing some cracks last year due to injury.
While the Reds prepare to defend a National League Central Division crown, both corners of their infield have important tests to pass in Spring Training, and beyond. Is Votto's surgically repaired left knee 100 percent again? And if it is, will it return to him the form that made him one of the best hitters in baseball?
As for Frazier, he played regularly much of last season by filling in for Votto and Scott Rolen. Now he'll be assuming the role of a true everyday player by replacing Rolen. Can he not only make a smooth transition but build on his rookie year success with an even more robust season?
The 2010 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, Votto doesn't have to prove himself in a manner like Frazier, but his knee will be highly scrutinized during camp. If it's good to go, there will be great relief.
Last month, the 28-year-old Votto wasn't ready to declare his knee 100 percent, but he was pleased with his progress, nonetheless.
"I can run at full speed, do jumping and do a lot of strength work. As far as improving, it's been a great deal," Votto said during Redsfest.
In 2012, Votto batted .337 with 14 home runs, 56 RBIs and a .474 on-base percentage. Despite playing 111 games, he still led the league with 94 walks.
Votto was on his way to an MVP-caliber season when a late June slide into third base at San Francisco injured his left knee. Tests a couple of weeks later revealed a cartilage tear, and he had surgery in mid-July. A setback during rehab forced a second surgical procedure, and Votto wasn't able to return until the first week of September.
After he missed 48 games, it was clear Votto's knee limited his abilities. In 28 regular-season games upon returning, he batted .299 and used his plate discipline to draw 29 walks but had no home runs. And despite his hitting .389 in the five-game NL Division Series loss to the Giants, he had no homers and no RBIs.
"I was certainly upset from getting injured and not being able to play to my potential and have an immediate impact at certain times during games," Votto said. "Time off has done me good, and the chance to strengthen, rehab and recover has helped quite a bit also."
In 128 games during his first full season, Frazier batted .273 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs and finished third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He didn't crack the lineup until mid-May, when Rolen went on the disabled list, but Frazier was indispensable playing first base while Votto was out, batting .305 with eight homers and 32 RBIs during that period.
Cincinnati did not wait for the free agent Rolen to decide if he was playing in 2013 before anointing Frazier as his successor at third base.
"I want to help this team," Frazier said in November. "I want to have that starting role and try to lead again and bring all of that energy that I do."
Although Rolen's production dwindled considerably the past two seasons because of injuries, it still won't be easy to replace an eight-time Gold Glove winner and a possible future Hall of Famer.
Able to play all over the infield and outfield, Frazier has never had a set position in pro baseball. But his defense at third base was more than competent, and he has the opportunity to keep improving with regular time at one spot.
"The bottom line is I'm going into Spring Training with my mind knowing I've got a position," Frazier said. "That's the comfort level I'm talking about: being positive and understanding you are the best at what you do. I will just keep grinding and keep having fun."
The Reds will have added depth at third base with the arrival of free agent Jack Hannahan, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract in December. Hannahan, a 32-year-old lefty hitter for the bench, spent his last two seasons in Cleveland. In 105 games in 2012, he batted .244 with four homers and 29 RBIs but missed some time with a back injury.
Another former Indians player, Jason Donald, played 12 games at third base last season. Donald, a utility player who was part of the trade that brought Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati, batted only .202 in 43 games last season but is a .257 career hitter.
Should Votto need a day off, Frazier could always move over to first base, and Hannahan can step up to third base. If more depth is needed at first base, the Reds could look to prospect Neftali Soto, who hit 14 homers with 59 RBIs at Triple-A Louisville last season. Soto also set a career high with 116 strikeouts in 122 games.