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Votto on WBC roster, but unsure if he’ll play

With nearly a week’s worth of spring training reps under his belt, Reds first baseman Joey Votto looks the part of the franchise cornerpiece he’s being paid to be.

After loosening slowly through the first few days, Votto’s swings have become more thunderous in the past few sessions, and if not for a fluke rainstorm at the team’s spring training complex on Wednesday, he most likely would’ve drawn large crowds for batting practice.

But does what appears to be a bill of good health mean Votto will suit up for his native Canada during the upcoming World Baseball Classic?

The slugger says he’s still not sure, and insists he’ll wait until the day before to make any decisions.

Canada did include him on its roster for the tournament, which starts next week. The roster deadline was Wednesday.

Votto, who has been trending on Twitter as part of a bracket-style competition, finished slowly after suffering a torn meniscus last summer.

Reds manager Dusty Baker isn’t keen on Votto playing, and the team exercised its right to keep Johnny Cueto from playing for the Dominican Republic, but Baker tried to keep a positive outlook on the additional work that other players will get.

“A guy who is a slow starter gets one more look,” Baker said. “Brandon (Phillips) being gone, or whoever may be gone, that’s more for someone to show us what they’ve got, so there’s a plus side to it.”

Paul working hard: Weaving the tapestry that is a baseball roster is no easy task, especially on a contender.

So explained Baker from the confines of his office Wednesday, noting that one of the keys is having a strong nucleus. But he added that niche players can make all the difference to a team trying to jump from division winner to World Series champion.

Xavier Paul certainly knows his niche. After being acquired last July, the veteran outfielder hit .314, and he’s hoping to stay with the club this season in a similar role.

Paul sees a landscape much like the one he walked into last summer, and hopes that will again translate to success.

“I think we have a similar roster to what we had, with the exception of (Drew) Stubbs being gone,” Paul said. “Bringing in (Shin-Soo) Choo, that’s another lefty. That may come into play with their decisions on me, but I think at the end of the day my role would probably be the same as it was last year — a left-handed bat coming off the bench in late-game situations.”

Baker had an eye on Paul after getting a tip from Dodgers outfield coach Gene Clines, and said he’d been interested in acquiring the veteran in the past. Paul’s numbers in the majors had been decent with L.A. and Pittsburgh, but he’d proven himself a Triple-A standout, hitting .315 or higher in each of his last five stints at that level.

“He’ll fit in probably like he did before,” Baker said. “You’ve got to remain hungry. It’s like a utility guy or certain long relievers where you’ve got to make the team each year.

“This is part of putting the puzzle together. This guy gives you two wins, this guy gives you three wins. This guy gets you over the hump. You can sort of have specialty guys on your team. I need a left-handed pinch hitter and spot player. I need a right-handed sinkerball guy that can get me out of trouble with a double play.”

Who’s on the hill?: Wednesday’s rain and chilly weather forced the team inside to the batting cages, but the skies are expected to clear for today and the current forecast for Friday’s spring training opener against Cleveland is sunny with a high of 64. When asked who might start on the hill for the Reds, Baker told the media that decision would be left up to pitching coach Bryan Price.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Baker said. “We’ve got 37 games. That’s almost a quarter of our season, isn’t it?”

No choice in helmet: Those tuning into spring training games will likely notice a slightly bulkier standard helmet on all major leaguers this season. A footnote in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement mandates that all players wear the Rawlings S100 Pro Comp, which it says can protect the head against fastballs traveling as quick as 100 mph.

The helmet is slightly heavier than those most major leaguers have worn in the past, although about 200 players did wear the S100 Pro Comp last year. The only players given reprieves are the few who have helmets with earflaps on both sides.

“Protecting our players with the latest innovations in protection equipment is a top priority of Major League Baseball,” said Dan Halem, the league’s senior VP for labor relations, in a release. “Last year the Rawlings S100 Pro Comp received a great reception from the MLB players that chose to wear it, and we’re pleased to take the next step and roll it out league-wide.”

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