Joey Votto has been one of the best hitters in baseball over the past two decades, compiling a career that could eventually earn him induction into the Hall of Fame. But before he potentially heads to Cooperstown, he’s trying to figure out where to go after leaving Cincinnati. 

Following an iconic 17-year tenure with the Reds, the 40-year-old Votto is a first-time free agent after the only organization he’s known declined his 2024 option. While the former MVP isn’t looking for sympathy — he repeatedly stressed how much appreciates all the support he’s received and how much he’s enjoyed connecting with fans across the interwebs — he is eagerly looking for a new MLB home.

For as much as he enjoys talking about baseball, he still wants nothing more than to be digging into a spring training batter’s box and playing baseball. Unfortunately, as he shared with me in a wide-ranging and colorful interview on “Flippin’ Bats” this week, there are no substantial updates in his free agency.

“Nothing’s changed. And I’m among many players that are dealing with this circumstance,” Votto said. “So, in my head, the next time I play, I’ll be so excited and grateful to be able to get back on a major-league field, get back on a baseball field and compete. That’s really all where my head is at.”

Votto’s specific circumstances are the result of two injury-plagued and unproductive seasons. In 2021, the lefty slugger was still good enough to rank ninth in wxOBA (expected weighted on-base average). But he required left shoulder surgery in August 2022 to repair a torn rotator cuff, which also sidelined him for most of 2023. 

While he was able to return last June, the procedure sapped him of the strength and range of motion to externally rotate and extend out front while swinging. It clearly compromised the six-time All-Star, as he batted a career-low .202 with a 99 OPS+. (His career marks are .294 and 144, respectively, over nearly 9,000 plate appearances.) 

Thus, he spent the entire offseason vigorously rehabbing and training to prove he could still hit. 

“I want the game to let me know where I fit in,” Votto said. “And I say that as sincerely as can be. I don’t want to play bad anymore. These surgeries and recoveries take a long time, a long time. … I’ve dedicated my entire 2023 to coming back. I didn’t play well [last summer], but I was not healthy. Let me rephrase that: I was healthy enough to get on the field and compete, but I was not at my best self.”

About 19 months removed from repairing his rotator cuff and having his biceps reattached, the veteran first baseman feels strong again and believes he can still help a team. He just needs a chance.

“Again, the game will let me know if I’m done,” Votto said. “And I can tell you right now, I will thank my lucky stars, when I’m done. I will be grateful; I’ve been so lucky to have gotten to this point, but I need the game to tell me I’m done. I need a healthy version of me to compete, fail, adios, sort of thing.”

Joey Votto on playing 17 seasons for the Reds and their 2024 ceiling

Whether Votto takes another at-bat in the majors, he seems equally invested in seeing the league and the sport as a whole continue to expand its reach. He’s pleased to see this year’s MLB World Tour initiative featuring games in the Dominican Republic, England, Mexico and South Korea. But he hopes it’s just the beginning.

“I’d love to see the game get a bit more international,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sport. And to see it thrive in Latin America and see it thrive and in parts of Asia. It’s a testament to how simple of a sport it is and how much it aligns with our natural, sort of throwing something, catching something, swinging at something, running, sprints, diving, sliding. These are all things kids do. We love being outside, in the grass, in the dirt. These are things that are in line with being a kid. And I think carrying that to different parts of the world. I’d love to see our sport grow.

“I do feel like there’s more potential. And I do think with the continued games in Mexico, games in Europe, games in Asia, I do think we’re expanding in that way. But I’d love to see a bit more.”

I asked Votto, then, how he would feel if he were currently a member of the Dodgers or Padres and was tasked to open the season in South Korea in two weeks before returning to the U.S. and playing a few more exhibition games before restarting the regular season a week after the Seoul Series.

“I say as someone without a job right now, you only have so many opportunities in life,” Votto said. “And to be able to wear a major-league uniform, and play a game in a completely different continent, that is memorable. That’s opening the major-league season. I understand the discomfort, I understand the potential challenges, but you’ll always have that. … 

“You give some stuff up sometimes to have those great memories, and more importantly, we’re expanding the game. This is part of our job. It’s crucial that we continue to build bonds all over the world. This is crucial. It’s part of our salary. So I have no — I understand the pushback or the discomfort, but ultimately, we’re here to serve.”

Joey Votto on Seoul Series + MLB’s continued international expansion

For more from Votto, please check out our full 40-minute interview with him below.

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Ben Verlander is an MLB Analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the “Flippin’ Bats” podcast. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Verlander was an All-American at Old Dominion University before he joined his brother, Justin, in Detroit as a 14th-round pick of the Tigers in 2013. He spent five years in the Tigers organization. Follow him on Twitter @BenVerlander.Tghu

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