As Joey Votto hits injured list, the question no one wants to ask rears its head

When Shohei Ohtani got Joey Votto to pop up to the shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ first baseman’s first at-bat of Wednesday’s doubleheader, it didn’t seem like much more than the first out of the second inning.

Five pitches later, however, Ohtani would leave the game with what the Los Angeles Angels called “arm fatigue.” Hours after that, it was revealed that the Angels’ two-way phenomenon had a tear in his UCL and a thousand questions were launched about the future of baseball’s biggest star.

Votto faced Ohtani’s replacement, Tyler Anderson, two innings later, grounding out, but driving in a run. Then, in the sixth inning, rookie TJ Hopkins went to the plate to hit for Votto. A day later, Votto was placed on the Reds’ IL with a similarly vague diagnosis of “left shoulder fatigue.”

In the short term, there are questions about exactly how severe the injury is, and how the Reds will replace him. But in the bigger picture, there’s one that hangs over everything: have we seen the last of Joey Votto in a Reds uniform?

The left shoulder is the same one that required surgery last year, a surgery that caused some speculation he’d played his last game. This one, for now, will require at least a strengthening program, according to team officials. Reds manager David Bell told reporters in Arizona, including Gordon Wittenmyer of the Cincinnati Enquirer, that the injury was a “strain.” Votto didn’t elaborate much, Wittenmyer reported, only that the injury had affected his swing.

With 33 games remaining in the 2023 season after the opener of the Reds’ four-game series with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Phoenix’s Chase Field, time is running out for Votto.

The clock isn’t on Votto’s side for several reasons, starting with his upcoming 40th birthday on Sept. 10. It is also the final guaranteed season on Votto’s long-term contract. The Reds have a $20-million option on Votto for 2024 with a $7-million buyout.

The questions were swirling about Votto’s future even before he left the field in Anaheim. Two weeks ago, Votto appeared on The Athletic’s Starkville podcast with Jayson Stark and said, “To answer the question about where I see myself in a year, I have tried really hard to stay present.”

Votto’s long answer concluded with this statement: “When I’m not a major-league player, I’ll leave.”

Even after leaving Wednesday, Votto was still a major-league player. Even though he was hitting just .200, Votto had a 101 OPS+, meaning he was one percent better than the average big-league batter. Much of that is on the strength of his slugging.

If there’s been a hallmark of Votto’s career, it’s been evolving and adapting to the skills he’s possessed. In his 2010 MVP season, he was simply the best hitter in baseball. In 2012, he came back from a knee injury and simply decided not to make outs, putting up a .505 on-base percentage with just eight extra-base hits in 25 games after returning from his knee injury. In 2017, he decided to stop striking out and finished second in the MVP voting to Giancarlo Stanton. Then after struggling in 2020, he became a slugger, hitting 36 home runs, one shy of his career-best, as a 37-year-old.

In 2022, Votto’s power disappeared, along with the strength in his hand as a result of the shoulder injury he said he’d suffered years before. Ultimately, he required surgery to repair his rotator cuff and during surgery, it was discovered he needed a repair of his biceps, as well.

After his surgery, Votto tweeted out, “I didn’t know I was hurt. Thought I just stunk.”

Votto has remained powerful even as his on-base numbers have regressed. (David Kohl / USA TODAY)

Although originally optimistic about his chances at returning for Opening Day, Votto started this season in Triple A, homering in his first plate appearance, but striking out 21 times in 45 plate appearances over 10 games as his rehab assignment was put on pause. Six weeks later, he was back in the minors and then finally a fortnight later in the big leagues.

“I expect to perform, but it’s intimidating when you have a surgery like that and you’re an older player,” Votto said before his return.

On June 19, in his 2023 debut, Votto homered. Three days later, he hit two homers in a game. In 170 at-bats this season, Votto has 13 homers and five doubles among his 34 hits.

Votto is arguably the greatest all-around hitter in Cincinnati Reds history, with more power than Pete Rose and more longevity in a Reds uniform than Frank Robinson. He’s among the franchise leaders in most offensive categories. His Hall of Fame resume is more or less complete, but it has never quite seemed like the game had passed him by, just that he was slowly contemplating a riddle he’d yet to unravel, but eventually would.

Of all players, Votto wouldn’t want a long farewell tour, playing out the string to get to certain milestones or just to give fans one last chance to see him on the field. He’s said for nearly a decade that his skills would tell him when it was time to go. In the end, maybe it will be his body that tells him it’s time.

On the field, the Reds have shown they can move on without Votto, with Christian Encarnacion-Strand starting at first base in recent days and Spencer Steer for much of his absence on the front end of the season. Jonathan India could move over when he returns from the Injured List. The Reds also signed veteran first baseman Trey Mancini to a minor-league deal on Wednesday and he homered in his first game for Louisville Thursday.

Even in the stands at Great American Ball Park, there’s seemingly as many No. 44 Elly De La Cruz jerseys on the backs of fans in the stands as there are Votto’s No. 19.

Just like we hope that the final image of Ohtani on the mound isn’t him wincing and walking off with an athletic trainer, the hope is that Votto’s weak RBI roller to third isn’t the last we see of him on the field.

A lot can happen over the next month and Votto’s beaten the odds and expectations as much as anyone in his career, so it’s premature to declare this the end.

But it is a reminder that the end will come, even for Joey Votto.

(Top photo: Harry How / Getty Images)

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