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04/20/11 10:00 AM ET

Votto topping last year not too far fetched

CINCINNATI -- It took two questions for Reds third baseman Scott Rolen to get to the crux of the matter.

The first question was actually his -- an innocuous inquiry about what the interview request was all about before he officially agreed to it. Joey Votto, he was told.

Rolen nodded his head, his way of granting permission that this was OK territory to tread. He appeared eager, in fact, about the chance to brag about the guy whose clubhouse stall sits catty-corner to his.

Question No. 2 went to Rolen. It was designed to examine the veteran infielder's opinion of Votto's long-term potential, to exam whether the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2010 has a legitimate chance to defend that crown, to determine where Votto's name rightly belongs among the game's current stars.

Turns out, there was minimal analysis needed.

"I think," Rolen began, "he's better than he was last year right now."

Such is a scary proposition for anyone not donning Cincinnati red and white. And Rolen isn't the only one willing to offer so bold an endorsement.

Votto won't go so far as to boast of already being better himself, but he'll tell you he's on his way. And he vows that he'll get there.

"I think the toughest challenge we have as players is to not accept the status quo, but to get better despite everyone telling you that you've reached your peak or that you've maxed out," Votto said. "I actually thought before the year that I was going to give myself a pretty good shot to play well and be counted among the better players in the league and in the game. I don't think it was much of a surprise."

So when Votto says he believes he can be better -- remember, we're talking in relation to a .324 average, 36 doubles, 37 homers, 113 RBIs and a .424 on-base percentage in 2010 -- he deserves an ear.

Give him that ear, ask a few questions and a few absolutes will surface. There is an obvious confidence in his ability, though MVP recognition typically has such an effect. A self-induced expectation is there, too, along with the new burden of shouldering external expectations.

And yet it's what is absent from Votto's mindset that allows you to truly gauge his ceiling. The glaring omission? Complacency.

"I won the National League MVP last year," Votto said. "For most people, you can't do much better. But I'm trying to be a better version of me as a player."

"As much as anybody, Joey has accepted the responsibility and the role of being MVP."
-- Dusty Baker

Votto may yearn to become a more complete player. Those around him swear he's already on his way.

"Joey stays after it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "The thing about Joey is he doesn't give away at-bats. He doesn't take plays off. Close game, blowout game, he's real good at concentrating, focusing and doing what he's supposed to do. As much as anybody, Joey has accepted the responsibility and the role of being MVP."

The theory that Votto 2010 was a fluke, an anomaly of sorts, should hardly have had traction to begin with. Now, it's merely laughable. Despite what the casual observer may have concluded, Votto didn't exactly sneak up on the baseball world last season. And that's what ensures he's not going away.

Free from the anxiety and depression issues that interrupted his 2009 season, Votto has rid himself of his biggest obstacle. Even during a tumultuous '09 season, the first baseman received MVP votes. He finished with a .322 average and 25 homers.

That was one year after a stellar rookie season in which Votto finished behind only Geovany Soto in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year.

So leave any one-year-wonder comparisons with Pat Listach or Brady Anderson on another planet. The 27-year-old Votto might actually just be beginning to tap into what's there.

"There's been a progression," Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby said. "You saw him hit for average. You saw him drive runs in. You saw him hit home runs. He put it all together last year and was very consistent. He's driven. This guy is driven to be the best."

"Disciplined" is the term his teammates toss around liberally. Votto would concur, noting that one of his points of emphasis this season is to be more mindful both on the field and off. Being more efficient and wasting less energy in his preparation, Votto contends, will allow him to bring more to the plate.

He talks about not wasting at-bats, something he points out as a shortcoming in 2010. (Yes, he is that nit-picky.) He'll also face the added challenge of now being the feared guy in an already above-average Cincinnati lineup.

"You expect something from him every time he walks to the plate."
-- Scott Rolen on Joey Votto

The latter has not slowed him so far.

"He doesn't get in his own way," said Rolen, plenty familiar with playing across the diamond from a superstar. "You expect something from him every time he walks to the plate. He's going to put up big numbers. He's certainly one of the best hitters in the game right now, for sure."

Votto doesn't concern himself all that much with accolades. Don't misconstrue that -- the MVP award meant a lot to the first baseman. But that's not his desired measuring stick of success.

So there's no need asking him whether he plans to repeat as MVP in 2011. He'll willingly leave that to the media to debate.

"I could come in 10th in the MVP voting this year, or not voted at all, but if I think I became a better player -- by my definition, I think I've improved -- and it will be a successful year," Votto said. "I'm not trying to drown myself in expectations. I am the National League MVP. I'm proud of it. But I also do my best not to crush myself and let it all roll on me."

The sample size is small, as Cincinnati has completed just 10 percent of its season. But the early returns are right in line with what everyone in the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park anticipated.

Votto entered Tuesday with a .429 batting average, a figure that ranked second in the National League. He's also at or near the top in runs scored, hits, total bases, on-base percentage, walks and batting average with runners in scoring position.

Not to mention, some of his expected competition is lagging behind early. Neither Albert Pujols, nor Hanley Ramirez, are off to particularly noteworthy starts. Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Howard haven't been as tough to retire as Votto has either.

Yes, there's an obligation to throw Troy Tulowitzki's name out there as an early MVP frontrunner -- but with the asterisk that the Colorado shortstop has had a hard time staying healthy for six straight months numerous times before.

So for Votto, why not again?

"He has developed a great knack for doing what he does," Rolen said. "His expectations are real, too. I think Joey definitely can maintain that kind of pace, that kind of success, and be a perennial MVP candidate."

And Jacoby: "In fact, I had told some people back home [before the 2010 season] that this kid is a potential Triple Crown-type player."

It's rare for an MVP recipient to entirely fall from among the league's best the year after anyway. Over the past two decades, 11 times the NL MVP award winner finished top 5 in the following year's vote. Only four failed to get their name on an MVP ballot one year after winning.

There's no reason to believe that Votto will land in the latter category. He's too complete a player, too driven to be the best to take that sort of plunge.

"I think I've performed at a high level and will continue to do that," Votto said. "My performance -- and I did perform well last year -- gives you the opportunity to be counted among the best."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.