Soon they'll be calling Joey Votto 'Mr. MVP'

Reds first baseman Joey Votto hits a game winning home run against the Pirates at Great American...

Reds first baseman Joey Votto hits a game winning home run against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 11, 2010. (ANDY LYONS/Getty Images)

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:32 AM ET

TORONTO - Edgar Caceres managed 22 position players with the Rookie-class Gulf Coast Reds in 2002.

The youngest player on the Cincinnati Reds’ Sarasota, Fla.-based affiliate was infielder Melvin Soto, age 17.

The next youngest was Etobicoke’s Joey Votto, 18.

“The main thing coaching that level is to get the kids to survive,” said Caceres from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he teaches baseball.

“You try to help kids mature, explain what they need to do, teach our routine and organizational stuff, as well as finding out their weaknesses and strengths.”

Rookie-class, it has been said, does not truly represent the minors.

It’s worse.

More or less a boot camp ... early morning workouts, first pitch at noon and seldom is everyone off the field by 4 p.m.

The longest trip is two hours with no overnight stays.

The fan base of parents and girlfriends may match the number of scouts sitting in the seats.

“Managing that level you never think ‘This guy is going to be an MVP or a franchise player some day,’” said Caceres. “What you think about is baby steps. Baby steps.”

And on Monday afternoon, if voting unfolds as it should, Votto will take some manly steps to his phone.

The conversation should go like this:

Votto: “Hello.”

Caller: “Hello Joey, this is Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers of America ... congratulations, you are the National League MVP.”

Votto is bidding to join Larry Walker and Justin Morneau as the only Canadians to win a Major League Baseball MVP award.

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We remember checking in on Votto that summer of 2002. The conversation went like this:

Me: “So, Joseph how is it going?”

Votto: “You wouldn’t believe what a great life this is. The bus picks up at the hotel at 7 a.m., takes us to the field. We watch ESPN in the clubhouse and have breakfast. Then, we go for batting practice, do our pre-game infield, come back in, watch ESPN and eat. Next, we play a game, come back in, watch ESPN and eat again.”

Me: “Do the Reds not own a remote control? Are you guys expected to watch ESPN replays all day long?”

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Selected as a catcher in the second round of the 2002 draft by the Reds, Votto started seven games behind the plate in his first summer as a pro, another 19 at third base, three in outfield and 21 as a DH.

“We had to figure out where he fit best. We thought he’d hit, but where would he play?,” Caceres said. “First he was a catcher. Catching didn’t work out. We put him in left, it didn’t work out. We put him at third, it didn’t work out.

“The next spring they put him at first. It worked out.”

Votto hit .269 his first year as a pro. Future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones hit .226 in 1990, his rookie year.

This season Votto led the National League with a 1.024 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage),

Playing in 150 games for the Central-division Reds, he hit 36 doubles, two triples, 37 homers and knocked in 113 runs.

Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, in search of a three-peat, had a 1.011 OPS in 159 games with 39 doubles, a triple, 42 homers and 125 RBIs. His Cards finished five games out of first with 86 wins.

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Votto still drops by IMG to work out.

“He hasn’t changed,” Caceres says. “I see him a lot.”

Caceres may see Votto a lot, but amateur scouts either didn’t see much of Votto or didn’t like what they saw of him as a 12th-grader playing for Mel Oswald’s Canadian Thunderbirds. In 2001, Votto wasn’t drafted.

Most of the scouts who saw him following season were not impressed, either.

They didn’t know Votto and pal Warren Bradley had worked relentlessly on their hitting.

Before school. After school. On weekends.

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Reds scout George Castleberry first saw Votto at a TeamOne showcase in Fort Meyers, Fla., an event Votto attended after consulting a mentor.

Too old to play for the Canadian Junior National Team, Votto returned to his roots, catching for Bob Smyth’s Etobicoke Thunderbirds.

Pat Gillick saw Votto in 2002.

Gillick, who was general manager of the Seattle Mariners at the time, and scouting director Roger Jongeward flew from the coast for a pre-draft workout at an indoor facility in Etobicoke.

“Bobby was scouting for us, he liked Votto a lot,” Gillick said. “We saw him hit in the cage and went outside to watch Joey and another catcher throw.”

The M’s thought Mississauga’s Chris Leroux, also at the audition, had a better chance of catching in the majors than Votto.

Votto made his major-league debut Sept. 4, 2007. Leroux didn’t appear in the bigs until May 26, 2009, with the Florida Marlins — as a reliever.

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Blue Jays scout Bill Byckowski saw Votto before the 2002 draft.

“Jim Ridley had taken over scouting Canada after J.P. Ricciardi had me cross-checking in Ohio and Michigan,” Byckowski said.

It’s a story he has told many times. The Jays were anti-high school when Ricciardi was GM.

“I saw Joey play once, one rainy night at Christie Pitts,” Byckowski said. “He was catching, threw a ball into centre, popped up a couple of times and struck out. You can only go off what you see.”

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Caceres and Votto were together a month at Class-A Potomac in 2004 and the next year at Class-A Sarasota.

Not a good year.

Dan O’Brien Jr., then the Reds’ GM had instructed hitters to “take” a strike each at-bat until reaching double-A. How often was the first strike the best strike hitters would see?

“That was the philosophy of our organization,” Caceres said. “Joey wasn’t happy and had a tough year. In the long run it helped him get mentally tough.”

The next season Votto was at double-A Chattanooga and “took off” with 22 homers, 77 RBIs, a .319 average and a .956 OPS, after hitting 17 homers, 83 RBIs, a .256 average and a .754 OPS in the “take-a-strike” league.

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Votto was in drama class at Etobicoke’s Richview Collegiate when the Reds called him as soon as the first round of the 2002 draft ended.

Would he sign with them?

“Would I?”

The Reds selected him 44th over-all and he received a $600,000 (US) signing bonus from Reds’ scout Castleberry.

New York Yankees scout Dick (The Legend) Groch had already driven to Toronto that same draft day, poised to head over to Votto’s house if the Yanks took him with the 71st pick over-all.

The Yanks had chosen Oklahoma high school righty Brandon Weeden with their first pick. Weeden spent five seasons in the minors and threw his final pitch at class-A High Desert in 2006.

“People think baseball is an easy game,” Caceres said. “It took a lot of work for Joey to get where he is right now, it was hard work.”

Votto had blisters on his hands from extra hitting sessions.

“He’s made some strides since back then, I didn’t have a doubt in my mind he would make it, he was very raw with potential. I didn’t know he’d be this good.”

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Overlooked by scouts, Votto gets the short shrift in this and his other hometown papers. This is the 100th time I’ve written his name in the Toronto Sun, dating back to before the 2002 draft. In all, he’s been mentioned 182 times.

Consider, Jeff Francis of North Delta, B.C., who was given a $1.7 million bonus as the ninth pick by the Colorado Rockies. I’ve typed his name 118 times and he’s made the paper 179 times in all.

Then there is Adam Loewen of Surrey, B.C., who went fourth over-all, receiving a $3.2 million bonus from the Baltimore Orioles. I’ve mentioned Loewen’s name 149 times and he’s been in the paper 238 times.

Look for things to change: Francis is a free agent, Loewen has been resigned by the Jays and will be at triple-A and Votto should be the NL MVP.

While Votto signed seven hours after Castleberry arrived at Votto’s house, it took 50 weeks for Loewen to agree to his deal.

The year 2002 was a golden year for Canadians with a then-record nine players selected in the first 10 rounds. In addition to Loewen, Francis and Leroux, who went in the ninth round, Toronto-born Jesse Crain went in the second, Welland’s David Davidson and Luke Carlin of Aylmer, Que., went in the 10th.

All made the majors.

Regina’s Rob Harrand and Terry Forbes of Cole Harbour, N.S., were ninth-round picks. Harrand played two seasons in the minors and Forbes three.

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Caceres remembers the summer of 2002.

Early mornings. Votto’s work ethic and the non-stop stream of questions from an inquisitive Canadian.

Some were baseball questions. Others? He was not so sure.

“One day Joey asks ‘what’s this six-pack everyone talks about?’” Caceres recalls, telling him “it’s a flat stomach like yours.”

Another day, while tugging at his elastic belt Votto asked Caceres if he thought the Reds would give him a leather belt if he made the majors.

“Believe me, you’ll get a leather belt,” Caceres told him.

And now, if voting unfolds as it should, Votto will soon have an NL MVP belt.


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