Votto vows to return strong: 'If not, I'm going to retire'

Veteran gets candid discussing ongoing return from offseason surgery, expectations

March 27th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There are only a few questions remaining regarding the composition of the Reds' Opening Day roster. Easily the biggest one left is the status of first baseman .

When the Reds host the Pirates on Thursday's Opening Day at Great American Ball Park on Thursday, Votto will not be part of the festivities. Votto, who has spent Spring Training getting ready for the season while still rehabilitating from August surgery that repaired a torn rotator cuff and biceps in his left shoulder, will open the 2023 campaign on the injured list. He'll start a rehab assignment with Triple-A Louisville on Friday.

Votto, 39, was the designated hitter in Saturday's 9-2 loss to the White Sox and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in five innings. He is batting .182/.308/.227 in eight games this spring. Before the game, he spoke at length about the issues involved with the decision.

Endurance: Has Votto accumulated enough innings and at-bats?

Votto played seven innings in each of his last three games entering Saturday.

"I haven’t played any nine-inning games," Votto said. "We play every day. We play a nine-inning game every single day for six months. … More than anything, I’m coming back from a surgery that involves a longer rehab. I want to make sure I am fully prepared when I come back."

With only one game left in the Cactus League schedule on Sunday, Votto doesn't have time to play full games with the big league club, though there are intrasquad games scheduled on Monday and Wednesday in Cincinnati. He could also remain in Arizona and play in Minor League games. 

"There is a reason guys ramp up and do the three out of four days, seven innings, nine innings and they do that for a stretch of time," Votto said. "I’m happy about the progress. My swing doesn’t feel ready yet. My legs don’t feel ready yet. But I’m working hard defensively, on the bases and in competition to be back as soon as possible."

The decision isn't tied to getting extra at-bats in Minor League games, where the rules can be relaxed to let Votto lead off every inning.

"As far as the Minor League at-bats, that’s not how preparation works," Votto said. "Preparing for a season is tied to adapting to the speed and volume, building up stamina, building up the capacity to handle consistent consecutive work in a variety of climates. That’s the objective of Spring Training." 

Votto must be game ready when he debuts in the regular season.

Votto noted that in recent days, he faced Dustin May from the Dodgers and Andrés Muñoz and Paul Sewald from the Mariners and got a reminder of how fast the game can be. When he does debut in 2023, he must feel fully prepared.

"The second you get put into that first lineup, you’re not in rehab mode," Votto said. "You’re not in 'let’s pace him' mode. I have the responsibility of coming back and being able to answer the lineup every day, be available for any pinch-hit, defensive switch, what have you, and then run it back each and every day for the rest of the season. That’s exactly what I’m preparing for. … I’m trying to move toward that, I feel like I’m getting closer toward that."

Manager David Bell trusts Votto's opinion in the final decision. 

Bell has had conversations with Votto throughout camp about his status. He says the veteran will have "huge input" in the outcome. 

"Joey is in a different situation because of who he is. He’s earned it, he just knows himself," Bell said. "He’s been doing this a long time and has been one of the best ever at it. I’m going to trust what he’s saying as far as how he’s feeling and how ready he is and all that."

Votto's status does affect the makeup of the 26-man Opening Day roster. , a corner infielder, still remains in camp and the final position spot on the roster appears to be between Vosler and outfielder . Both are non-roster players.

Playing well for Cincinnati is a big deal.

Entering the final season of the 10-year, $225 million contract extension he signed in 2012, Votto is coming off the worst offensive year of his career. Over 91 games, he batted .205 with a .689 OPS, 11 home runs and 41 RBIs. 

Having a similar season, especially once healthy, would not be acceptable.

"I mean this, seriously, I think I'm going to play well," Votto said. "I think I'm going to perform well offensively. If not, I'm going to retire. End of story."

Votto has been on 15 Reds Opening Day rosters and is tied for fourth all-time with Johnny Bench with 14 career Opening Day starts. 

"I recognize that being a part of Opening Day is important in our city. I recognize that I've been there for a while and the fans' expectations are. I will always want to meet them," Votto said. "I just want to make sure that I'm clear that this is a performance-based game. You have to do your job. And I can't come back early and tank and embarrass our organization."