Votto torn on subject of playing in Classic
Reds All-Star slugger wants to represent Canada, but wary of balky left knee
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The days are dwindling to a precious few, and Reds first baseman Joey Votto still hasn't determined whether he'll play for Team Canada in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, which begins in Japan and Taiwan this weekend and continues in Arizona and Puerto Rico next Thursday.
Votto is coming back from a pair of arthroscopic surgeries on his left knee last season and is being appropriately cautious. He played in his fifth Spring Training game against the D-backs on Wednesday at Salt River Fields, going 1-for-3 with an RBI.
Votto said after exiting Cincinnati's 14-6 victory that he'd make his decision "whenever I feel that I'm physically ready, and [after deciding] whether or not I'm willing to make that commitment."
"I don't think it would be fair to anybody to make a commitment like that and then back out right beforehand," Votto added. "I just want to make sure I'm healthy."
Canada is in the Arizona pool with Team USA, Mexico and Italy. The Canadians gather at the Goodyear Ballpark shared by the Reds and Indians for a workout on Monday and just happen to play the Reds there in an exhibition game on Wednesday. Canada also has a warmup game against the Brewers at the Maryvale Baseball Park on Tuesday.
After a workout at Chase Field on Thursday, Canada plays its first game of the tournament against Italy at Salt River Fields at 12:30 p.m. MT on March 8. The Canadians follow that up with afternoon games at Chase Field against Mexico and the U.S. the next two days.
For his part, Votto said he won't be in uniform for Team Canada until the first tournament game, if at all.
"That would probably be the smartest decision from my part and the organization's part," Votto said.
Canada already has lost projected starting catcher Russell Martin. Martin dropped off the team the other day after his personal request to play some shortstop was nixed by Team Canada and the Pirates, who signed Martin as a free agent this past offseason to a two-year, $17 million contract.
Martin's decision left the Canadians without a key right-handed power bat, and at least one of his prospective teammates and countrymen was a bit perplexed.
"With so many left-handed hitters, it obviously affects the balance of our lineup," said Justin Morneau, who is playing in the Classic with the Canadians for the third time under manager Ernie Whitt. "He's an established Major League hitter that has had some success. Obviously, we're going to miss him, but we're going to have somebody there who wants to be there and is going to be honored to put the jersey on and be a part of it. Whoever's there will have to find a way to get it done."
Votto, who hails from Toronto, would be proud to don the colors of Canada, but he may not be willing to jeopardize his Major League future to play in the Classic. At 29, Votto is in the prime of his career. He just signed a $225 million, 10-year contract extension this past season with a $20 million team option for 2024. It is by far the richest deal given a player by the Reds and the longest any team has ever given a Major League player.
It's no wonder that Reds management might be a tad concerned about Votto playing for his country coming off a season in which the 2010 National League MVP and Hank Aaron Award winner missed 51 games and was limited to 14 homers and 56 RBIs.
Reds All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips is also leaving the team this weekend to play for manager Joe Torre and Team USA.
"It doesn't matter what I think about it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "I just hope these games aren't coming too soon. And I hope nobody gets hurt. Already, I'm playing these guys a little more than I would ordinarily at this point in the spring. I'm still not sure whether Votto is playing. I don't know. They left a spot open for him. It depends how he feels."
Votto said he feels "good, thank you," and he's having a solid spring at the plate. He went 1-for-3 as a designated hitter on Wednesday before leaving the game for a pinch-runner during the sixth inning after smacking an RBI single. He's 4-for-10 with a homer and five RBIs thus far in Cactus League play.
Canada may have gambled by offering one of its coveted 28 roster spots to Votto, but it's worth the wait if he plays, even as a DH. During the first two Classics, won by Japan, Canada didn't make it out of the first round, and last year under the new format had to qualify just to make it back to the Sweet 16.
"So they're kind of all in with me," Votto said.
That begs this question: Will Votto be all in with them? The clock is ticking.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.