With Blue Jays in need of offence, Joey Votto poised for return to minor-league games

Jeff Blair and Kevin Barker discuss Joey Votto's first game as a Toronto Blue Jay on Wednesday as he suited up for a minor-league contest against the Detroit Tigers, and when fans might expect him to debut with the major-league team.

TORONTO — Remember back in spring training when the Blue Jays signed Joey Votto to a minor-league deal? It was a move that had all the makings of a feel-good story.

Here was a 40-year-old potential future Hall-of-Famer fighting tooth and nail for his spot on a major-league roster. Succeed and this local Toronto boy would get the chance to come home to play for the team he grew up watching. Fail and his career could fall into uncertainty. 

It’s the kind of drama you find in a Hollywood script. 

Votto added to the story in his first spring training at-bat for the Blue Jays, homering on the very first pitch he saw from Philadelphia Phillies ace Zack Wheeler. 

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Just as quickly, though, the Joey Votto Comeback was paused. Minutes after his epic home run, Votto stepped on a bat in the dugout and rolled his right ankle.

The slugger told media after the game he didn’t expect his ankle to be an issue and hoped to be “back real soon.” However, Friday marked exactly two months since that injury, and Votto has yet to return. His status and recovery timeline have been somewhat of a mystery, with the slugger seemingly making little progress at the Blue Jays’ player development complex in Dunedin, Fla.

That has apparently changed, though, with Blue Jays manager John Schneider revealing before Friday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre that Votto has been taking live batting practice and running the bases this week. The hope is that Votto can make his way into game action soon, likely in the rookie-level Florida Complex League. 

“He’s fine with doing it anywhere as long as pitchers are throwing strikes,” Schneider said. “So, it’ll probably be [Complex League] before he goes anywhere else.” 

Schneider acknowledged that Votto prefers to take things slow to ensure he’s putting himself in the best position to succeed. 

“He was pretty adamant about being 100 per cent physically before he really stepped on the gas,” said the manager. “So, I think, out of fairness to him, [he expressed] that even when he came in, before he got hurt. It was just like, ‘I want to make sure that I’m really ready before I go.'”

The Blue Jays are a team that could desperately use all the offensive help it can get. The club’s 155 runs scored are just ahead of the MLB-worst Chicago White Sox (130). Additionally, the Blue Jays entered play on Friday ranking 24th in OPS (.661) and 26th in home runs (36). 

Votto is among the best hitters of his generation. He’s blasted 356 home runs over a career that’s spanned 17 seasons while slashing .294/.409/.511 and producing 64.5 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference. 

Votto missed the first two-and-a-half months of the 2023 campaign while recovering from left shoulder surgery. He returned on June 19 and posted a .747 OPS with 14 home runs in 65 games the rest of the way. 

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That type of production would certainly help the Blue Jays, and it stands to reason that Votto could be a replacement for slugger Daniel Vogelbach, who owns a .395 OPS this year, on the major-league roster. Both are left-handed hitters best suited either as DHs or as pinch-hitting options off the bench and because of their similar skillsets, it would seem redundant to keep both. 

Nonetheless, the Blue Jays won’t need to make that decision until Votto shows more progress. That will take some time and, to his credit, Votto has expressed a willingness to play anywhere as he works his way back to the majors.  

“Baseball is the same everywhere,” Votta said during spring training. “I’m grateful that it’s here in Toronto. Buffalo. Extended spring training. New Hampshire. Dunedin, Florida State League. I’m down for whatever.”

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