Joey Votto eager to prove to Blue Jays he still belongs in major leagues

Joey Votto discusses why getting to play in the city he grew up in and join a team with championship aspirations were primary reasons why the Blue Jays were his only choice after not getting to retire with the Reds.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Last week, Joey Votto decided it was time to give Ross Atkins a call.

The 40-year-old first baseman had waited long enough in free agency, and it was clear he wasn’t going back to the Cincinnati Reds or getting lucrative major-league offers elsewhere, so he arrived at what he describes as an “easy decision:” he wanted to sign with the Blue Jays.

Soon, there was a conversation about expectations – Votto says he has none – and he was on a plane the next day. Now, he gets the chance to prove to Blue Jays decision-makers that he can turn his minor-league deal into a roster spot with his hometown team.

Speaking to Toronto-based media Sunday morning, Votto expressed excitement at the chance to play for the franchise he grew up cheering for, confidence that he can still hit elite pitching and – perhaps most interesting of all – a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it back to the majors, even if it means riding buses in the minor leagues.

“I’m grateful that I have an opportunity,” he said, wearing a Blue Jays spring training hat and short-sleeved hoodie outside the team’s spring training clubhouse. “I get to once again move towards, for the second time in my professional career, (trying to) make it to the major leagues. And it excites me. It excites me to be in a hotel room in Florida, to take a shuttle or an Uber to the ballpark and be a minor-league player with an unknown number just trying my very best to make a team. It invigorates me. It’s what I feel I’ve been about, and it brings me great joy.”

A six-time all-star with an MVP to his name and 64.4 lifetime WAR, Votto is one of the most accomplished players of his generation. Yet to hear him tell it, he’s a minor-league player with no guarantees of big-league playing time.

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“I’m on a minor league contract,” he said. “And I’m not on the major league roster, so not only is that my attitude, but that’s the reality of the scenario. And so the idea that I’m going to come in and presume anything is a disconnect from reality, but (also) just what I’m about, right? I just I want to work and I want to compete and I want to fit in. I want to get along with guys, I want to be liked and I want to represent myself, my family and my country well. And this is the perfect opportunity.”

In other words, depending on how the last couple weeks of spring training unfold, riding buses in Buffalo to start the season is a very real possibility.

“That’s what I’m trying to say,” Votto replied. “I don’t have a say over that. As far as being open to it, I signed the deal assuming that that was going to be the case. I’m trying to prove I’m still a capable player and the last couple of seasons (where he posted a .712 OPS with 25 home runs in 156 games from 2022-23) were not real. And I have confidence that that will be the case.”

Physically, Votto was limited over the last two years, leading to biceps and left rotator cuff surgery in August of 2022. Extended rehab was required, impacting his 2022-23 off-season. While his numbers improved in 2023 – he hit 14 home runs with a .747 OPS – he believes he’s capable of far more following a more typical off-season of preparation.

“I may stink,” he said. “I doubt it, but I was able to fully prepare. This is me at my ready after a strong off-season. And we’ll see.”

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Ideally, Votto would like to get into games soon, but manager John Schneider has yet to determine a final plan on that front. With two and a half weeks remaining before opening day, there’s limited time remaining to get fully ready.

For now, Votto’s wearing No. 37, the number Dave Stieb wore in Toronto. But this isn’t a Stieb tribute or even the number Votto would necessarily wear if he makes the Blue Jays’ roster; it’s simply what was available. 

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I don’t want anyone to waste their money on 37,” he said. “We’ll confirm it (first). I’m trying to help people.”

Ultimately, it’s what Votto does on the field that will determine how long he gets to keep wearing the Blue Jays uniform. There’s opportunity on a team that could use left-handed power off the bench, and surely the front office wouldn’t have signed Votto if there weren’t a real path to a chance in the big leagues.

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Step one was signing. Step two will be proving that he still belongs.

“I feel like a boy,” he said. “I feel like a kid. I’m just excited.”

“I may never play a game for the Toronto Blue Jays,” he added. “I may never wear a major-league uniform again, but this is my opportunity to give it a shot, and I believe in myself, but I’m only one part of the equation.”

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