Impressive Votto might not be far away
First baseman draws raves for bat, improving defense
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Canadian Joey Votto's lumber of choice as a kid was usually a baseball bat, not a hockey stick.Votto, the Reds first base prospect, always felt more comfortable on the diamond than on the ice around his native Toronto. "I took a girl skating once, I fell all over the place and she laughed at me," Votto recalled. "That was actually my first date. She was laughing at me at the school the next day. When you're in the seventh grade and not skating so well, it gets around the school. It's a big thing." Fortunately for the Reds, Votto hits much better than he skates -- which could have the 23-year-old poised to be Cincinnati's next big thing. Ranked the organization's third-best prospect by Baseball America, Votto showed the makings of becoming a complete hitter for Double-A Chattanooga last season. Besides having 22 home runs and 77 RBIs, he led the Southern League with a .319 average, 162 hits, 78 walks and several other offensive categories. The Southern League named Votto its Most Valuable Player. The Reds named him their Minor League Hitter of the Year. He also particpated in July's MLB All-Star Futures Game. "There is no such thing as perfecting your game," Votto said. "But I try as hard as I can to do to get the fundamentals right, run the bases properly and listen to my managers and play defense. I want to clean up my game. There's always something to improve. It drives me crazy and it's frustrating some days when you think you have it and the next day, you don't. It's an ongoing struggle." With Scott Hatteberg and Jeff Conine set to play first base for the Reds, it's unlikely that Votto would skip an entire level and start 2007 in the Majors. He is expected to begin the season with Triple-A Louisville. In his second big-league camp, Votto impressed early on during live batting practice against Reds pitchers. Not only was the 6-foot-3 left-handed hitter able to drive the ball with some power, he smoothly hit the ball well to left, center and right fields. "That's just batting practice. But to be able to hit the ball the other way out of the ballpark shows you he's got the chance to hit a little," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "If he keeps improving and making adjustments, he's got a chance to be a pretty good player." Drafted as a catcher in the second round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, Votto was moved to first base early on in his development. He's still learning the fine points of the position and made defense a priority when he played winter ball in the Dominican Republic after last season.
"One thing I did last summer, I called him and told him to work on his defense as much as his offense," Narron said. "My understanding is he's been working hard defensively."That phone call came out of the blue for Votto, who was sleeping when Narron dialed him up. But it proved to be a confidence boost to know the Reds manager was paying close attention to his development. "I missed his call, and I called him back and I was surprised," Votto said. "I said, 'Who is this?' he said, 'Jerry.' I said, 'Who's Jerry?' Then I was like, 'Oh, yes sir.' It made me feel good. When someone is paying attention to you while he's busy doing his job, it's nice to know. He's telling you he thinks you have a good chance." During morning fielding drills, the Reds' first base trio of Hatteberg, Conine and Votto dutifully take ground balls and often work through situations. Each practiced scooping short hops or making throws to second base. In the various drills, Votto looked just as comfortable as the more polished veterans. Votto says he prefers to listen more and talk less when around Hatteberg and Conine, two of the more respected veterans in the game today. Hatteberg, 37, has liked what he has seen from Votto the past two springs. "He's one of those guys with unlimited potential," Hatteberg said. "He has got huge power. It seems like he's doing a great job of having an idea at what he wants to do at the plate. He's not just a one-dimensional power guy. He wants to hit for average. Defensively, I'm learning from him, too. He's very smooth over there. He's got a lot of skills in all aspects." The stars could align well for Votto this time next year. Both Hatteberg and Conine are signed only through this season, although the club does hold a 2008 option on Hatteberg. "I assume he'll be here shortly," Hatteberg said. "I saw him for a few at-bats last year. I know he had a great year at Double-A. I saw his face on the diamond screen I think more than my teammates as a 'player on the rise'." It'd be realistic to think that another good year could have Votto in the Majors when September callups are promoted. Until his time comes, he plans on leaving his mark at big-league camp for as long as possible. "I'm going to take advantage of the situation I'm in right now," Votto said. "I'm standing around Jeff Conine and Scott Hatteberg every single day listening to them and their stories and watching them go about their work. I have Ken Griffey Jr. in center field. Alex Gonzalez, one of the best defensive players in baseball, is at shortstop. I'd be a fool not to pay attention, watch and learn and add it to my own game. That's where I'm at here."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.