If one were to create a list of the best draft picks in Cincinnati Reds history since the draft's inception in 1965, you might find these names among those under consideration:
Johnny Bench: Second round pick in 1965 went on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Ken Griffey Sr.: 29th round pick in 1969 became an all-star, contender for the batting title, and key part of the Big Red Machine.
Barry Larkin: Fourth pick of the first round in 1985 was inducted into the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame in 2012.
Eric Davis: Eighth round pick in 1980 was an all-star, Gold Glover winner, and major component in the Reds 1990 World Series champions.
Those four names are legendary in Reds history, but it now appears that at least one more name could be added to the group. He became the 21st Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues and the first Dragon to win a big league Most Valuable Player Award. This is the story of former Dragon Joey Votto, whose feelings for the fans in Dayton match their feelings for him.
"(Dayton) is one of the most special places for baseball in all of the Minor Leagues and all of professional baseball," said Votto in August, 2012. "There is a fantastic fan base...they sure make you feel good. I come back here and receive nothing but support and appreciation and I feel the very same way about them."
Votto was a second round draft pick in 2002, taken immediately after Tampa Bay selected outfielder Jason Pridie and right before Baltimore picked outfielder Corey Shafer. Pridie has appeared briefly in the Major Leagues while Shafer was released without ever reaching the Double-A level. Votto, of course, has enjoyed significantly more success.
Prior to the draft in 2002, the 18-year-old Votto traveled from his home in Toronto to Cincinnati for a work-out at Cinergy Field, reportedly receiving advice from Bench himself on the finer points of catching. Despite the fact that he had played mostly third base as an amateur, Votto was drafted as a catcher. His first season of professional baseball in the summer of 2002 came with the Reds' Gulf Coast League club in Sarasota, where he hit well for the bottom club on the Reds organization ladder. In just 50 games, Votto belted nine home runs in a pitcher-friendly league and added 13 doubles and three triples with a .269 batting average.
Following that first season, Votto was rated by Baseball America as the 14th best prospect in the Reds organization. The publication's Prospect Handbook noted that Votto "has outstanding bat speed and demonstrates good hitting instincts. He shows a feel for hitting the ball to all fields." Defensively, there were doubts. "Some scouts question if he'll be able to stay behind the plate...a lot of room for improvement on footwork and glove-to-hand transfer."
By the time the 2003 season arrived, Votto had been converted to first base. The then-19 year old opened the season with the Dragons but struggled against more experienced competition. In 60 games, he batted .231 with just one home run. At the season's midpoint, the Reds sent Votto down one level to Billings, and he played much better there, batting .317 with six homers in 70 games.
In 2004, Votto returned to the Dragons and demonstrated why patience should be a virtue when evaluating young talent. The same player who had struggled the previous summer hit .302 in his second year with the Dragons. His home run production in Dayton jumped from one in 2003 to 14 in 2004. His biggest game came April 19 at Clinton when he drilled two home runs and drove in seven runs. He enjoyed a four-hit game at Fifth Third Field on June 15 against Wisconsin, and in July, he put together an eight-game hitting streak followed by a 10-gamer. On August 10, he was promoted to Potomac. All told, Votto played in 171 games for the Dragons over the 2003-'04 seasons.
Votto progressed through the farm system and enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2006 with Double-A Chattanooga when he won the batting title at .319, led the league in doubles with 46, added 22 home runs, won the Southern League Most Valuable Player Award, and was named Reds Minor League Player of the Year. He was now rated as the Reds' third best prospect behind Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce.
In 2007, Votto played for Triple-A Louisville and hit .294 with 22 home runs and 92 runs batted in to earn International League Rookie of the Year honors. In September, he was called up to the Reds.
Votto made his Major League debut as a pinch hitter on September 4, 2007 against the Mets. The next night, in his first big league start, he went 3 for 3 with a home run, batting eighth in the order. He finished the month with four homers and a .321 average and by the final game, he was batting in his now-familiar third spot in the lineup.
In 2008, Votto, still classified as a rookie, finished second to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, batting .297. His 24 home runs were the second highest by a rookie in Reds history.
In 2009, Votto hit .322 with the Reds in 131 games, adding 25 more home runs. In June, he made a two-game stop in Dayton as he returned from the disabled list and drilled a home run for the Dragons in his first swing upon his return to the ballclub.
Votto took another step forward in 2010 when he became the fourth player in Reds history to bat at least .320 with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. He was rewarded with the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the first Reds player to earn the honor since Barry Larkin in 1995. The player once projected as a catcher also won the N.L. Gold Glove Award as a first baseman.
After another strong season in 2011 (.309, 29 HR, 103 RBI), Votto came out of the gate with a spectacular first half in 2012. At the end of the half, he was batting .348 with 14 homers and 48 RBI. He was an all-star game starter at first base for the National League team. But a pair of knee surgeries cost Votto much of the second half, and he was limited to 111 games on the year. Still, he hit a career-best .337 and added 14 home runs. In August, Votto returned to the Dragons for three games as he returned from the second knee surgery, providing Dragons fans with another up-close look at one of the game's top stars.
When Votto re-joined the Dragons in August of 2012 on his injury rehabilitation assignment, you had to wonder. How many times in the 66-year history of the Midwest League, going back to 1947, had a former big league MVP taken the field for a MWL club in the same season that he had started the Major League All-Star Game? A case could be made that when Votto put on the Dragons uniform this summer, fans at Fifth Third Field were seeing the most accomplished player ever to play in a Midwest League game.
Click Here for Joey Votto's Statistics, Photos, and Video Clips
Click Here for Joey Votto's Minor League Statistics
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.