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3/13/2013 1:37 A.M. ET

Healthy Votto has Reds poised to dominate

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- An argument is about to be made that the 97-victory season put together by the 2012 Cincinnati Reds was even better than it appeared.

That 97-65 campaign was the second best in the National League in 2012, and was good enough to win the NL Central by a comfortable nine games. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this record was that it was achieved with star first baseman Joey Votto missing 48 games due to a knee injury.

That is a particularly commendable accomplishment, one that stands as a tribute to the 2012 Reds team. And it bodes extremely well for the 2013 team, whose core returns almost intact.

"That's pretty awesome for this team to do that," Reds manager Dusty Baker said on Tuesday. "Nobody's ever even talked about that too much. Winning that many games without your star for 50 games, I don't think too many teams could say that they could do that. You might win for a little while, but then, it's going to catch up to you.

"Look at the Dodgers when they lost [Matt] Kemp. They were OK for about two or three weeks, but after a while you start missing him."

Votto, the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player, was on the disabled list from July 17 to Sept. 3 following two arthroscopic knee surgeries.

Votto cannot be categorized as injury-prone. In his five full seasons in the big leagues he has played in 150 or more games in three seasons; once playing in 161. So you look at the 2013 Reds, and if you calculate that Votto will be available much more often, the Reds should be even better. But it is difficult, no matter the circumstances, to improve beyond 97 victories.

"I'll take 97," Baker said, more than once. "It would be hard to improve on how we played with him out. That first month, what were we, the first month he was out?"

In the calendar month after Votto went on the DL, the Reds were 21-7. That included a 10-game winning streak in late July. Overall, the Reds played .667 baseball (32-16) while Votto was on the disabled list. It was the best record in the Majors over that period.

"So like I said, I'll take 97," Baker said.

What the Votto-less performance said about the 2012 Red was, in the first instance, that they were talented enough to withstand the extended loss of their leading position player. In this specific case, they had rookie Todd Frazier to fill in at first much of the time and he responded with the kind of run production that made it appear that Votto was still playing.

It also says that this team was mentally tough enough to withstand this kind of loss. Rather than lapsing into self-pity, the Reds just kept competing.

"That's our job, the coaching staff," Baker said.

And this has been one of the main managerial strengths of Baker, who has been Manager of the Year three times. His better clubs withstand adversity, and persevere in difficult times with the best of them.

Votto made another return to the Reds Tuesday, this one after competing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.

"He played for his country and that was the right thing to do," Baker said. "Now it's time to come play with us."

"I didn't ever feel like I was not a part of it," Votto said of being out last season. "I knew that eventually I was going to come back and be a part of the lineup. But this is a good team and baseball is the type of sport where you don't need certain players to have success.

"I was happy to be back, I'm happy to be back right now, and I think we've got a strong club going into 2013."

Votto is one of the best players in the game. What the Reds did without him last year was a result of their depth of talent, their competitive will and the fact that they were able to offset his loss in other facets of the game. Their pitching was a major strong point last year, especially if you place a 3.34 team earned run average in the context of a club that played half its games at an extremely hitter-friendly facility. That pitching should be exceptional again whether Aroldis Chapman is the closer or a starter.

If Votto plays with the Reds on a much more regular basis than he did last year, it may not translate into more victories than 97, but it does offer an indicator of why the Reds again should be exceptionally good.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.