Blue Jays could bring Joey Votto home but does the fit make sense?

One of the best Canadian MLB players of all time is available, but it's unclear if he can still help his hometown team.

Joey Votto is available after the Cincinnati Reds declined his $20 million option on Saturday. Does he make sense for the Blue Jays? (Cole Burston/Getty Images

The idea of Joey Votto playing for the Toronto Blue Jays has cropped up time and time again over the first baseman's illustrious career.

Not only is he a Canadian baseball great from the area, the Blue Jays have consistently been looking for quality left-handed bats in recent seasons — and until Vladimir Guerrero Jr. moved to first base the team lacked a long-term solution at that position.

Add in the fact that the Cincinnati Reds have rarely been in the postseason mix lately with one playoff appearance since 2013, and the idea of them moving off Votto has surfaced repeatedly.

Despite the Reds' competitive predicament, they've always resisted the idea of trading the star, but on Saturday the team declined a $20 million option on the 40-year-old.

With Votto available and veteran lefty bat Brandon Belt hitting free agency, there is a theoretical fit between the Blue Jays and the 2010 National League MVP — something general manager Ross Atkins alluded to when speaking with Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith on Tuesday.

"Incredible player, remarkable career. There [would be] just massive impact in the community if he were to be a Toronto Blue Jay," Atkins said. "So definitely something that we would have to consider if that was something he wanted to pursue."

Whether that means Toronto is seriously interested or not is tough to parse, and Votto may not be interested in a homecoming with the Blue Jays. But if the team were to pursue the six-time All-Star it would need to answer two critical questions.

1. What does Votto have left?

At 40 years old, it's clear that Votto is past his prime, and over the last two seasons he's slashed .204/.317/.394 — good for a modest 95 wRC+. That below-average offensive production has been paired with negative defensive value that's come from playing a non-premium position in a way that's graded out poorly (-12 OAA).

That's not a particularly appealing package, but there are some reasons for optimism.

Votto's plate discipline is still strong with a walk rate over 11% in each of the last two seasons, and he remains a power threat with an ISO that's stayed above league average in each of the last four years.

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

Since the beginning of 2022 he's taken 618 trips to the plate — the equivalent of one full season — and he's hit 25 home runs.

His max exit velocity has topped 111 mph in each of his last two campaigns, a number that exceeds anything he posted between 2015 and 2019, suggesting his raw power is still intact.

In most cases, a player who walks at the rate Votto does with the power he's shown is an excellent offensive threat.

Unfortunately for the 40-year-old, when he's not putting the ball over the fence or walking to first base, he's not creating too much. His batting average on balls in play over the last two seasons (.240) ranks 307th of 318 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances.

That doesn't seem to be a fluke, either.

Votto is one of the slower players in the majors and his groundball rate has been steadily increasing. His formerly superhuman ability to avoid popups has also deserted him in his latter years. He creates plenty of relatively harmless contact these days, and his strikeout rate is on the rise, too.

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

None of this is particularly surprising considering Votto's age. He seems to be selling out for power more in the twilight of his career with mixed results.

While he was an elite hitter as recently as 2021 (140 wRC+), chances are that Votto is more of an average producer at this point, with no defensive value whatsoever. FanGraphs' Steamer projection system has him down for a .218/.319/.384 line in 2024 — good for a 94 wRC+.

2. Is there a role for him on the Blue Jays that makes sense?

Votto has superficial similarities to Belt as a seasoned left-handed hitter best relegated to DH duty, but plopping him into the role the former San Francisco Giant held in 2023 would be asking a lot.

When the Blue Jays signed Belt, he was just one season removed from hitting .274/.378/.597 and his down year in 2022 was easily explained by injury issues. Votto has also dealt with physical ailments that may have depressed his production in recent seasons, but he's six years older than Belt was when the Blue Jays added him. A bounce back is harder to count on.

Toronto's acquisition of Belt required it to forfeit the flexibility to rotate players through the DH spot while he held it down, but the team felt his bat warranted that sacrifice. Coming to the same conclusion about Votto at this point would be wildly optimistic.

Sliding Votto into Belt's role would be a hell of a gamble, but if the team were determined to bring him aboard there is an argument for handing him a bench spot if he's open to a small role. The Blue Jays have a positionally-versatile squad that made little use of its fourth bench position for much of 2023.

Votto could theoretically be a bench bat/veteran presence/clubhouse guru if that's something that appeals to him — and the Blue Jays feel like he could help the team in that way.

The model for that role would be late-career Jason Giambi, who took between 113 and 222 trips to the plate in his age-39 to age-42 seasons with the Colorado Rockies and then-Cleveland Indians between 2010 and 2013. During that time he almost never played in the field, produced a below-average wRC+ (99), and generated negative fWAR in three of the four seasons.

Even so, the Rockies saw him as a valuable bit player who could occasionally provide some power off the bench and wisdom for his teammates.

You can debate whether a player like that is worth a roster spot considering much of his value is impossible to measure. There is a case to be made for it considering how little the opportunity cost is, with most players at the end of the bench providing minimal value.

If Votto's going to play for his hometown team that's the situation that would make the most sense. Even then, the chances of the Blue Jays being open to a less-than-optimal roster while Votto embraces the smallest role he's ever had seem slim.