Joey Votto was drafted out of Richview Collegiate Institute in Toronto by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2nd round, 44th overall, in the 2002 MLB Draft at age 18. While in high school, Votto had spent most of his time at third base, but also saw time his senior season as a catcher. When his name was called at the draft he was announced as a catcher. Scouting reports on Votto out of high school noted good raw power potential and a good ability to hit the ball to all fields, though there were questions about whether he could remain at catcher.
Votto signed quickly and the Reds sent him to the Gulf Coast League to begin his career. The league is very pitcher friendly, but the left handed hitter more than held his own as he hit .269/.342/.531 with 25 extra-base hits in 202 plate appearances with 21 walks and 45 strikeouts. He showed solid plate discipline and very good power for his age. On the defensive side of things, he was all over the place. He would play seven games behind the plate, throwing out 22% of attempted base runners and allowing three passed balls. He would spend another 19 games at third base but was a disaster there posting an .830 fielding percentage in limited action. He would also play three games in left field where he made three errors.
The next season Votto was sent to Dayton and he struggled to hit in the first half of the season as he posted a .231/.348/.287 line in 60 games with 34 walks and 64 strikeouts. His power he had previously showed had disappeared, though his plate discipline remained strong. The Reds also made the move to shift him to first base. After struggling in the first half with Dayton he was sent to Billings for the second half and turned his season around in the hitter friendly league. Over 70 games with the Mustangs Votto hit .317/.452/.488 while walking 56 times and striking out 80 times to go along with 26 extra-base hits. After the season he was ranked by Baseball America as the 10th best prospect in the Pioneer League and was noted for a strong bat, but was never thought of as a guy who would do much with his glove.
In 2004 the Reds sent Votto back to Dayton for a do over and Votto responded well as he hit .302/.419/.486 for the Dragons with 79 walks and 110 strikeouts in 473 plate appearances. He had 26 doubles and 14 home runs before earning an August promotion to Potomac and the Carolina League where he hit .298/.385/.560 with 7 more doubles and 5 more home runs to finish out the season with a final line of .301/.413/.499 with 33 doubles and 19 home runs to go along with 90 walks and 131 strikeouts. After the season Baseball America ranked him as the 7th best prospect in the Midwest League and he was once again noted for his ability with the bat, but was again talked about as a below-average defender who wouldn’t be more than that.
The 2005 season is one that Joey Votto would like to erase from his memory and one that he has talked poorly about since. The Reds instituted a take-the-first-pitch rule to each at bat in the hopes that it would help their hitters learn better plate discipline and give them a better ability to recognize pitches. In theory, I believe there could be something to that, but in practice it just led to a whole lot of first pitch get-me-over fastballs as opposing teams found out about the rule and hitters were consistently working from behind the count. On top of that rule, Joey Votto was sent to the new High-A team in the Florida State League, which is notoriously pitcher friendly. When you put it all together, Votto, like many other Reds prospects that year, struggled. Votto hit just .256/.330/.425 with 52 doubles and 122 strikeouts in 529 plate appearances. He showed good home run power as he hit 17, but he hit just 23 doubles on the season. The Reds sent Votto to the Arizona Fall League following the season where his struggles continued as he hit .250/.289/.306. Scouts openly wondered if he would ever hit left handed pitching, but still saw good power potential in his bat.
In 2006 Joey Votto found himself in Chattanooga playing at the Double-A level. The 22-year-old took home the league MVP Award after hitting an impressive .319/.408/.547 with 46 doubles, 2 triples and 22 home runs while drawing 78 walks and 109 strikeouts in 590 plate appearances. After the season Baseball America ranked him the 7th best prospect in the Southern League and the 44th best prospect in baseball. For the first time in his career, he was also noted to be a solid defender at first base as he began showing good range at a position that doesn’t often see rangy players.
The 2007 season was the last time that Votto would spend time in the minor leagues with the exception of rehab. The Reds sent him to Louisville where he was strong, but took a step backwards from his outstanding year in Chattanooga. With the Bats, Votto went on to hit .294/.381/.478 with 21 doubles, 2 triples and 22 home runs in 580 plate appearances while walking 70 times and striking out 110 times. During the season, in the hopes of giving him more flexibility, the Reds attempted to play Votto in left field for 40 games in order to take advantage of his athleticism. He showed off solid range and a good arm. His performance earned him a September call up to the Reds where he hit the cover off of the ball posting a .321/.360/.548 with 7 doubles and 4 home runs in 24 games. After the season he was ranked as the 10th best prospect in the International League and the 43rd best prospect in baseball.
Joey Votto was a well regarded prospect from the time he was drafted. While he was seen as a bit of an over-draft, he still signed for second round money and was projected to go later in that round instead of 3rd overall in the second round. He even had several very strong performances that suggested he could become a very good hitter at the Major League level. From the beginning Votto showed good understanding of the strikezone and plenty of power potential. While you can never project a player to go on to be a career .316/.415/.553 hitter and future MVP, there were signs that he could become very good at the plate. The most interesting thing that continued to be said about Votto while he was in the minors was that he was not going to be a good defender. While Gold Glove Awards are highly debatable at this point in time, just about everyone believes that Votto is a very strong defender at this point in his career. He put in the work and even in just the time he has been in the Major Leagues has improved a lot. A lesser athletic first baseman may not have been able to show as much improvement.