If I were going to pick one player, from all of baseball, to have on my team in 2012, it would be Joey Votto. Votto was not the best player in 2010. He was 10th among position players in Fangraphs ‘ version of WAR. But if you look at the last two years, he’s suddenly second behind only Jose Bautista (and Roy Halladay if we throw pitchers into the equation) and just ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Evan Longoria.

So why Joey and none of the others? First, I’d never take a pitcher to start my team. Pitchers get hurt. A lot. Bautista is a miracle, but he’s also three years older than Votto and exiting what should be his peak years. Cabrera has his off-field issues. I think Votto is a better bet to repeat his performance than any of those guys.

Longoria? Yeah, he looks good to me, too. He’s younger than Joey and has been around just as long. He does have more of an injury history, though. So perhaps we can call that a wash and give Votto the tie-breaker since he’s on our favorite team and all.

This lengthy intro has been a round-about way of showing that Votto is in the conversation for best player in baseball. He’s still on the right side of the aging curve and he’s coming off two fantastic seasons. It doesn’t get much better than that. Depending on what happens over the next two years, we may be watching the next player to go into Cooperstown with a Reds cap.

Consider this, Votto has already had two years with a better WAR than Larkin’s best year and despite Barry’s head start, Votto is just one win behind where Larkin was at the same age. The next three years are pivotal. If Votto continues to check in at roughly seven wins per season, only injury or Dale Murphy Syndrome will keep him from compiling Hall of Fame numbers. We don’t know that Votto will be a hall of famer, and we don’t know that he’ll wear a Reds cap if he is, but he is a truly special player and that needs to be recognized.

And so, in doing the first base preview, we are doing a Joey Votto preview. If anyone else gets significant time at first, it’s going to be a problem. Fortunately, Votto has been very durable thus far, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t play 150+ games. So let’s dispense with all others, and talk about what we can expect from Votto.

Last year, his offense was down, but offense has been going down league-wide for a couple of years now, so that decline isn’t as significant as it looks at first glance. Beyond that, I’m sure most of us remember the odd power-outage Votto had last May. He hit only one homer and had his lowest ISO (that’s isolated power) since July of 2008. Add to that a September slump that was mostly generated by a BABIP way out of line with his career, and you have accounted for the vast majority of the decline.

That’s right, I’m saying there’s a good chance Votto improves this year. The currently available projection systems seem to agree. Only ZiPS sees Votto taking a step back, and I’ve got to believe that’s regression to the mean talking. Bill James, Rotochamp, and Fangraphs Fans projections all see an uptick, where as Oliver sees him treading water.

Barring injury, I don’t see how it can be argued that 27-year-old Joey Votto is likely to get worse this year. I expect a bit more power and roughly the same OBP. He’s proven to be an above-average fielder, and we shouldn’t expect a decline there yet. Altogether, I expect him to be right around a 7.0 WAR player, which is where he was the last two years, but I would not be surprised to see him go a little higher if league offense continues to decline. In essence, the Reds should hold steady at first this year. That is not a bad thing, friends.

Before I get to my official projections, here are a few notes. First, these are best guesses, and I’m not going to try and be too fine. Expect lots of fives and zeroes. Second, the floor projections will assume good health among the primary starter unless we have a past injury history that raises concern (see Rolen, Scott). Third, the ceiling and floor projections are just that. What would we expect in an off year from this player and what would we expect if he really puts it all together. Feel free to disagree loudly in the comments. Okay, on to the projections:

First, let’s do a good-old-fashioned slash line: .310/.415/.550

2011 First Base WAR: 6.9

2012 Best Guess WAR: 7.0-7.5

Projected Difference: +0.1 to 0.6

2012 Floor WAR: 5.5

2012 Ceiling WAR: 9.0

A personal plug/aside: As you may have noticed from the above mention, I have access to the Oliver projections from The Hardball Times Forecasts. I edit at THT and wrote the Reds comments for their projection system this year. The projections are behind a pay wall (worth it, if you ask me), but THT is a great site without the projections. If you don’t check it out regularly, you should.

Redleg Nation Position-by-Position Season Preview:

First Base
Second Base
Right Field
Center Field
Catcher
Starting Pitching – Front End of the Rotation
Bullpen
Starting Pitching – Back End of the Rotation
Third Base
Shortstop
Left Field
Season Preview Wrap-Up