While adding Votto doesn’t hurt, he won’t make or break Blue Jays’ season

Arden Zwelling catches up with former NL MVP and Toronto Blue Jays non-roster invitee Joey Votto, discussing his offseason, how he's treating Spring Training, and his hopes to return to the big leagues with his hometown club.

Vini, Vidi … Votto?

Look, I have no idea whether Joey Votto has anything left. And I’ll admit, the cynic in me wondered whether his sudden interest in social media these past few seasons wasn’t aimed at seeding the ground for a post-playing career as much as squeezing out one or two more major league seasons. Votto has been a great player — hell, a generational hitter — on a small-market Cincinnati Reds team, which means he has spent much of his career out of the limelight. He was also at times a challenging personality, so he could be forgiven for wanting to burnish his reputation just in case. 

(And fair play to him. Nobody gets hurt. The only way I managed to get Frank Thomas to sit down for an interview in his first spring training with the Blue Jays was when he noticed my relatively low Baseball Writers’ Association of America card number. “You a Hall of Fame voter?” he asked me after repeatedly turning down requests. When I nodded in the affirmative, he said: “In that case, give me five minutes.” Presto: 45 minutes of vintage Frank Thomas.)

So here we are: Votto has agreed to a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays with an invite to spring training and I’m really having a difficult time seeing this as anything other than … well, an intriguing storyline. I know there was some eye-rolling initially at the news (I’m putting my hand up, here) because let’s face it: there is a great deal of skepticism about this front office after a relatively inert off-season on the heels of a bollocksed-up and disheartening end to 2023. It’s hard to go from Shohei Ohtani to Cody Bellinger to Matt Chapman to … eh?

But I’m gonna cool my jets, here. I mean, I can’t imagine how bad a day I’d be having to get into a debate with somebody about Joey Votto versus Daniel Vogelbach for the last roster spot, so let’s let this play out. It’s not like much else of interest will happen unless the Blue Jays bring in J.D. Davis or something. Votto showed up on Sunday and did what he was supposed to do: speak very much like Employee No. 37 and then take batting practice. He is invigorated, he said. Feels like a kid again, he said. Considers himself a minor leaguer because he’s on a minor-league deal, he said. Triple-A? He hears Buffalo’s lovely at this time of the year! Beef on weck, anybody? Love me some beef on weck.

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It’s true that Votto coming home isn’t as big a deal as it would have been, say, five years ago. It might also be true, as some have suspected, that there was a time when Votto would have just as soon played anywhere other than Toronto. Only he knows for sure. But my goodness, Votto had 14 home runs last season and in limited playing time managed to hit .283 with runners in scoring position. He’s just 26 hits away and 27 homers away from breaking Larry Walker’s record for a Canadian-born player, and if he sells a few jerseys and makes people happy? I just don’t see the downside and believe me: I’m predisposed to looking for the downside after covering two victory laps of significance in my career.

The only thing Omar Vizquel accomplished in spending the 2012 season with the Blue Jays is knock me off the fence about his Hall of Fame candidacy. Brutal. At his very best, Vizquel was a benign presence; last to arrive, first to leave. At his worst, he spent much of the second half backstabbing then-manager John Farrell, who at one point reportedly asked the front office to release Vizquel without success. Vizquel’s ‘leadership’ qualities were put on display when he stood by as Yunel Escobar took the field with homophobic slurs written on his eye-black — Escobar was suspended, and Vizquel’s response was just slightly more than a shrug. Again: brutal, a hugely disappointing revelation that helped place in context some of the off-field issues that ended up ultimately killing his Hall candidacy.

I also witnessed the final year of Gary Carter’s career, when he returned to the Montreal Expos in 1992. It went the way you’d expect: lots of smiles, the odd hit, moments in front of the microphones and cameras milked to the extreme and mostly accommodating teammates who admitted when it was done that if it wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, neither was it the annoyance many of them anticipated.

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Truth is, not much really changed over the weekend. This is Bo Bichette’s team. It still needs an upgrade at third base, and if Vladdy and George Springer and Alejandro Kirk don’t hit and Kevin Gausman doesn’t stay healthy, a 29-year-old Joey Votto wouldn’t be able to save the season.

Breaking out

As someone who has repeatedly called for Major League Baseball to increase the visibility of its top prospects, I’m thrilled at the Spring Breakout Games concept.

The television footprint will be limited for these initial games – a squad of Blue Jays prospects will play New York Yankees prospects on Friday – but that’s OK: the World Baseball Classic has shown that MLB can plant a seed and nurture it successfully.

Beyond that, however, I really wonder when we get to the point where MLB takes total control of player development at the expense of the minor leagues because let’s be clear: not every minor leaguer is a prospect; we’ve kind of turned the word into a participation medal. MLB teams have already pared down their number of affiliated franchises and my guess is that without the Congressional sabre-rattling over the game’s anti-trust exemption, the cutting would have been even more draconian.

Given the amount of money spent on player development facilities and the advent of proprietary team-owned pitching and hitting laboratories, I wonder how close we are to MLB teams focusing entirely on a smaller, streamlined group of elite prospects, which might create a whole new class of independent leagues.

Giant headache

Former major leaguer and current San Francisco radio host F.P. Santangelo made an interesting point in an appearance on Blair & Barker as we chatted about the difficulty the San Francisco Giants have in attracting premium free agents.

This became a talking point over the winter when Giants minority owner and future Hall of Famer Buster Posey suggested the city’s social issues worked against attracting free agents. Visiting teams stay in the downtown area, which has more social challenges than many urban settings – and while it’s not as frigid as Candlestick Park, Oracle Park isn’t Dodger Stadium or Petco Park either.

It has no roof and can be death for right-handed hitters and, well, the point of being a free agent is you get to be picky. Santangelo, a Bay Area kid, noted that when the Giants rattled off their dynastic run of three World Series between 2010-2014, it was with a group that had been largely drafted and developed by the organization. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt – not to mention Posey – were all Giants draft picks.

Santangelo’s point is well-made: creating a sense of camaraderie in the minors and organizational pride can cover up a lot of issues real and perceived at the major league level.

Caught short?

I didn’t put any stock at all into rumors over the winter that the Los Angeles Dodgers had eyes for Bichette and were interested in acquiring him. But I have to say: watching the panicky move of Mookie Betts to shortstop to manage Gavin Lux’s throwing issues got me thinking about whether the national media will be re-visiting this without a long-term extension for Bichette, who has worked hard to improve his defence. Fingers crossed …

Dumbing down the discourse

It’s a good thing spring training stats don’t matter, otherwise you’d have an even harder time convincing me that Ernie Clement shouldn’t make the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster …

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and Sportsnet daily from 11 a.m.-noon ET.

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