TORONTO – Joey Votto described himself as being at his most excited when home, so much so that the feeling left him with goosebumps and cost him sleep.
He grew up 11 kilometres from the Rogers Centre and regularly passed by the dome and the CN Tower during his summers growing when he’d head downtown to catch up with his dad at work. “There’s great meaning (in returning to the city),” he said. “Truly great meaning.”
Of course, then, he conceded, he’s allowed himself to ponder what it might be like to play for the Toronto Blue Jays, the team he was raised on. The 38-year-old first baseman’s path took him in a different direction. He’s now approaching the end of what’s been a legacy career with the Cincinnati Reds but his hometown club has never been far off his radar.
“There are three important teams in my life,” he said Friday. “When I was drafted, I thought I was going to be a Yankee. My late father wanted me to be a Yankee. We were wooed by the Yankees approaching the draft. Then the Reds selected me, so that’s the second team, and the most important team.”
“And the Toronto Blue Jays are my childhood team. The team that I still have family and friends peppering me with questions about. Pointing out how good the team is doing. Coming to a 2015 playoff game and sitting there in the stands after we got knocked out, grumpy at Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, friends of mine. So, of course.”
Votto’s long-term commitment to the Reds back in 2012 – when he signed a $225-million, 10-year extension that runs through next year with a club option for 2024 – essentially negated that possibility. He would have been the perfect add for the 2015-16 Blue Jays, when Cincinnati last sold off its core, but now, amid the club’s latest razing to the ground, as he’s trying to find his swing after a dreadful start and bout of COVID-19, the fit is less certain.
Certainly his profile – high-OBP, high-IQ, left-handed hitter with power – is a need for the Blue Jays, who rode an RBI single from George Springer, run-scoring double from Bo Bichette and six shutout innings from Hyun Jin Ryu in a 2-1 victory Friday night.
But Votto began the night with a .413 OPS in 22 games and “stoked to right the wrong,” he said. And while he’s very right in noting he’s had “very few poor stretches in my career and I’ve always corrected them,” how much from what remains of his $25 million salaries this year and next, plus the $7 million buyout on his 2024 option would the Reds have to pay down to make him a bet someone is willing to take?
Given the way the Reds hacked payroll over the winter, finding common ground with any team is unlikely, and Votto would have final say about his destination, which he’s earned and deserves.
Now, perhaps the equation changes if he were packaged with right-hander Luis Castillo, who allowed two runs on seven hits with five strikeouts over six impressive innings Friday. The 29-year-old was making his third start of the season since recovering from a shoulder strain and is among the game’s most electric starters, but as a pending free agent after next season, he’s part of the Reds’ past, not their future.
Hence, there’s room for creativity for any team that wants to be.
The priority for the Blue Jays this summer, at least as things are shaping up, needs to be a left-handed hitter who can make some impact. Ideally, it’s an outfielder or someone who can bounce around the diamond, but with the DH spot currently cycled around the roster to manage workload, they can stick any acquisition there and not worry about positional fit.
Flexibility at DH is helpful, though sacrificing that for another offensive piece is a worthwhile trade.
“Yeah, as any manager can tell you, if we get at DH that swings the bat and is there every day, I’m all for it,” said Charlie Montoyo. “Right now we don’t have that guy, so we’re using the DH spot to give guys a half-day.”
The Blue Jays did that Friday, using Springer at DH and starting Bradley Zimmer in centre with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. still working through some hamstring tightness. Zimmer doubled twice, including in the fifth to trigger the pivotal two-run rally.
Ryu made it count despite allowing 12 balls in play at 94.9 m.p.h. or above, six of them in triple digits. The veteran left-hander, in his second outing since returning from forearm inflammation, allowed a double in five of his six innings but found a zero each time, helped along by some strong defensive positioning.
Still, his fastball averaged 89.7 m.p.h. and he touched 92.9, his hardest pitch of the year, creating a 10.1 m.p.h. separation from his changeup, which generated five of his seven whiffs.
“As a guy who we can command his changeup and fastball with life, that’s how I attack the hitters,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “If I’m able to keep that up, that’s just going to continue to grow.”
The contact against both highlighted the importance of his changeup to help control bat speed, as well as the defensive alignment to best support him.
One of the five doubles came from Votto, who ripped a ball to right at 99 m.p.h. with two out in the sixth, but was stranded when Kyle Farmer lined out at 102.6 m.p.h. right at Raimel Tapia in left field.
“The process is the front office puts together some information for us, send it down, we go over it, making sure we’re all on the same page on what we’re trying to do,” said first base coach Mark Budzinski, who positions the outfielders. “Hopefully more times than not, you’re in the right spot. It’s not a perfect science, but we try to give our guys a chance to make plays.”
The Reds eked out a run in the seventh on Matt Reynolds’ RBI single, but Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano, in his first outing since a gastrointestinal infection, locked it down.
For Votto, a 1-for-4 day is a start as he tries to reroute his season. He came back from the IL with a plan and his process of diagnosis leans away from too much data.
“I feel like with more information it gets more complicated, like you start spiralling down,” he explained. “I’ve tried to keep it really simple. I’m more of a feel hitter. When I have too much information, I complicate things. I’m at my best. When it’s simple, it’s instinctive, it’s natural.”
No better place than home for that.