TORONTO – At last, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is coming up, his bat finally forcing the hand of the Toronto Blue Jays, with a trail of false reports predicting his promotion date and provocative chatter about defence and foundations and routines all now cast off into the distance.
Baseball’s top prospect debuts Friday versus the Oakland Athletics, suddenly pulling a franchise living for the future back into the present. If the 20-year-old becomes the prodigious player his talent suggests he can be, then the rebuild he’s being counted on to carry has a real chance of succeeding.
If not? Well, Blue Jays fans have ample experience living in baseball’s wilderness.
Such are the stakes, which is why a front office that has its fate, at least in part, tied to Guerrero has been so excessively cautious with the most eagerly anticipated prospect in franchise history. Barring the extreme case of a punitive demotion, this long-awaited promotion was the last real leverage point the Blue Jays had over the slugging third baseman.
In a sense, Guerrero is now like a high-school graduate headed to university, sent away with the freedom to become the person he’s going to be. Sure, the Blue Jays can continue to preach things like defence and routines, but freed from the minor-leagues, he won’t be under their thumb in quite the same way.
All they can really do now is hope that they’ve provided the type of upbringing that gives him a strong mooring from which to make good decisions. Everything – the continued development, the expectations, the opportunity – is on his sturdy frame now.
“If you think about the plays a major-league player has to make and the consistency of the execution of those plays that is expected from major-league pitchers, from major-league coaches, from (media), from fans, we want to make sure we’ve done everything he can possibly do, to be in the best position to be as consistent as possible when he comes here,” general manager Ross Atkins said recently in discussing the finishing touches the Blue Jays wanted to see from Guerrero.
“He’s going to make mistakes here. As we’ve seen from some of our young players that are transitioning, mistakes are going to occur. But the foundation is what we’re pushing so hard for him to have. A lot of that is tapping into all the power he has, making sure that we’ve done everything from a performance standpoint to help his body be in the best possible position to execute all the plays he can make and has shown us he can make. But we want to see him do it in a more consistent way and that’s been the challenge.”
Or maybe a player as talented as he is needs the majors to show him what he doesn’t know. Either way, the time has come for Guerrero to make his own way.
The glue to hold the rebuild together
Now, worth remembering is that for all the boilerplate talk about defence and total ballplayer, the excitement and hype around Guerrero isn’t a by-product of his fielding. No one expects to see the second coming of Adrian Beltre on the hot corner.
Rather, Guerrero arrives in the major-leagues as the Blue Jays’ best homegrown offensive prospect since Vernon Wells, who debuted in 1999, and one even more highly touted than Carlos Delgado was when he first broke through in 1994.
A poll of five scouts from rival teams about Guerrero produced one 70/80 grade for hitting/power on the 20-80 scale, three 70/70s and one 65/70. That’s superstar stuff, even if he ends up on the low-end of that range.
“The bat is real,” was one scout’s succinct summation.
“I’m a fan,” said another, “and (I) look forward to watching him play up in the bigs.”
Should it indeed translate, Guerrero would give the Blue Jays the type of middle-of-the-order thumper they’ve lacked since Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson exited their peaks and departed.
The Blue Jays hope to eventually pair Guerrero with Bo Bichette, whose upward pressure at triple-A Buffalo was halted this week when an errant pitch broke his hand, in combination with whomever sticks from their current crop of young players in the majors, like Teoscar Hernandez, Rowdy Tellez, Danny Jansen, Billy McKinney and Brandon Drury. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., working his way through throwing troubles at Buffalo, is in that mix, too, along with fellow infielder Cavan Biggio and outfielder Anthony Alford, who figures to get his shot once the Socrates Brito experiment reaches its likely conclusion.
Providing veteran presence while the next core emerges is the recently extended Randal Grichuk and, for now, Justin Smoak. The pitching picture is less clear, but whatever happens, Guerrero will be counted on to be the glue that brings it all together.
Jokes about the hype started long ago. Vladimir is actually spelled M-e-s-s-i-a-h. So, four total AL MVP awards, or four straight? Did you book a hotel for the junior Guerrero’s induction to Cooperstown in 2035 yet? Underpinning the quips is the air of hyperbole that has – unfairly – taken hold of the public expectations for Guerrero.
Last year, Ronald Acuna Jr., of the Atlanta Braves and Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals were similarly hyped uber-prospects who were promoted to the majors and hit the ground running, each producing a WAR of 3.7, per Fangraphs. This year, Fernando Tatis Jr. has come in hot with the San Diego Padres, while Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez has had a more gradual entry to the majors.
Considering that Guerrero was thought to be major-league ready as a hitter last summer and is projected by some objective measures to be among the top-10 most productive offensive players in baseball this year, it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll mash immediately.
Wisely, manager Charlie Montoyo was trying to manage expectations after announcing Wednesday that Guerrero would debut Friday, although you can understand why frustrated fans will want to see the big guy as a saviour.
Still, a steady hand will be needed, the kind bench coach Dave Hudgens remembers the Houston Astros providing when he was the hitting coach there as all-stars Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman transitioned to the majors.
With Guerrero and other prospects, Hudgens believes, the key is “giving the guys confidence. Giving them room to grow and room to fail little bit.”
“A good example,” he continues, “was when Bregman got off to an 0-for-18 but we could tell he believed in himself and he had the credentials of minor-league experience. So (manager) A.J. Hinch hit him second even though he hadn’t gotten a hit yet. He went from 6-7 to just put him second in front of Jose Altuve, maybe he’ll get better pitches. That showed him, hey, they have a lot of confidence in me. From there he just took off.”
In the midst of that slow start, Hudgens knew not to worry about Bregman when the rookie came into the batting cage one day and said to the coach, “I’m going to hit .300.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I think you will someday,’” recalls Hudgens. “He said, ‘No. This year I’m going to hit .300.’ He was 0-for-18 at the time. He didn’t quite get there (Bregman finished at .264) but he came pretty close. That’s the kind of attitude you look for.
“We just tried to help nurture that, develop it, and encourage him. You like those guys with a little bit of an edge to them and you like the guys that believe in themselves. That’s what we’re looking for with the guys that are coming up and the guys we have here.”
Guerrero possesses a similar belief in himself. In January, when asked to explain his approach in the batter’s box, he said through an interpreter: “When I step in, my mindset is that I’m the best guy in the world and it’s the other guy that has to try harder, so I’m ready. I know I’m big, I’m the best and I don’t let myself get intimidated by anyone.”
The wait is over, so let’s enjoy the ride
This is going to be a lot of fun.
To some degree, the joy of watching Guerrero plow his way up to the majors was lost amid the ongoing debate over when he’d finally be promoted, what he needed to do to finally break through and the expectation that the Blue Jays would manipulate his service time in order to steal an extra year of club control from him.
In the end, an oblique injury during spring training muted that piece of the conversation, leaving only the incessant speculation about what euphemisms such as “foundations” and “routines” really meant, and over which day Guerrero would finally debut.
A handful of reports late last week and early this week stated that he’d debut Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants, but the Blue Jays held true to their desire to have Guerrero play three consecutive days before bringing him up.
Baller that he is, Guerrero went 2-for-5 with a homer during a 5-4 Bisons win at Syracuse that made for a memorable peace out to the minor-leagues.
A lot of hard work has gone into getting him to this point.
Ismael Cruz, the club’s former director of international scouting, spent three years following Guerrero and pushed for the Blue Jays to blow through their international signing bonus pool to get the kid, even if it meant paying a penalty and sitting out the next two signing periods under the old system’s rules. Then-GM Alex Anthopoulos made it happen, authorizing a $3.9 million signing bonus and then trading minor-leaguers Chase De Jong and Tim Locastro to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three international spending slots that meant the Blue Jays only sat out the 2016 signing period (allowing them to get well-regarded right-hander Eric Pardinho in 2017).
“We spent some time debating if we were (willing) to get one guy and sit out X amount of years,” Cruz said in 2015. “Those guys don’t come across very often, so it was either play all your marbles on one guy or go out and get a couple of players that are fine. But for us, Vladdy Jr., is a difference-maker. He has the potential to be a very, very special kid.”
Cruz nailed it, and Guerrero turned out to be a remarkable parting gift left for the franchise by him and Anthopoulos, one the Blue Jays have worked diligently to develop fully amid a rapid ascension ever since.
Guerrero’s walkoff homer in Montreal to cap off the 2018 pre-season offered a tantalizing taste of the joy he can bring. He’s got a high-wattage smile. He plays with flair. He brings the goods. And now he’s arrived, here to start a new era for a Blue Jays franchise that’s banking on the new beginning he looks set to provide.