Why the wait for MLB’s top prospect goes on
The most intriguing member of the Blue Jays organization will not be at Citi Field on Tuesday night for a series opener against the Mets.
The question if he should be, though, will be ever present.
Toronto GM Ross Atkins mentioned he answers inquiries daily about the arrival date of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who turned 19 two months ago. Who had played 31 games at Double-A and none at Triple-A.
Such is the modern game. Even five or 10 years ago, only the most rabid fans knew even the best prospects. Now, each of Guerrero’s at-bats are posted on Twitter.
Plus, he is Drake-large in Canada because his father, Vladimir Sr., was a great Expo and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 29. And Vlad Jr. took it to another level when he hit a walk-off homer for the Blue Jays in Montreal in the final spring game on March 27.
One scout in love with Guerrero’s skills — and those are like strikeouts these days, everywhere — went as far as to say: “I get so excited talking about that kid. I think it is possible one day we will have two Hall of Fame Vladimirs from the same family.” For the record, the only father-son duo enshrined is Larry and Lee MacPhail, who were executives.
There is a long way obviously from the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats to Cooperstown. But the buzz for the third baseman is intense, and the era is open to this. Last year, the Red Sox promoted Rafael Devers, at 20, and the Dodgers Cody Bellinger, at 21, to help solidify eventual division champs. This year the Yankees called up Gleyber Torres, 21, to help rise to the majors’ best record while the Braves have forged the NL’s best record around Ozzie Albies, 21, and the recently promoted Ronald Acuna, who, at 20 years and 147 days, is the youngest player in the majors.
Acuna’s promotion left Guerrero as the consensus best prospect in the minors and left Atkins answering relentless questions about why Guerrero is not a Blue Jay yet.
“First and foremost it is a great position to be in, as far as wondering what is ideal for [such a good prospect],” Atkins said by phone. “I feel about Vladimir the way I do all our prospects — what is the best position to put them in to realize every ounce of potential without threatening any aspect of their foundation?”
Atkins noted those stumping for Guerrero’s promotion are “entirely focused on one aspect of his game.” That would be offense (.397 average/1.091 OPS). One scout, asked when Guerrero would be ready to hit in the majors, said, “yesterday.” Another said, “I put Guerrero and Acuna ahead of Bryce Harper for what I think they are going to be. I think these kids are going to hit .310-.320 with big power every year. I thought Manny Ramirez was the greatest young prospect I have ever seen hit, and I would put these two kids with him.”
But there is more than hitting. Devers and Bellinger were great decisions in 2017 real time, but in 2018 it is clearer that Devers is not a finished product defensively and Bellinger was yanked from a game for what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said was a lack of hustle. A 19-year-old failed in his first major league try in 2011. That was Mike Trout.
“We feel like there is a good opportunity in the minor leagues for [Guerrero] to become a better more well-rounded player than in the majors leagues,” Atkins said.
Guerrero is not long and lean like his dad. He is squattier, which raises concerns about conditioning — Scout: “He has to be vigilant about body maintenance and nutrition because it could get out of control if he doesn’t pay attention.” — and defense, though he is nimble with a strong arm. Atkins says Guerrero still has work to do as a baserunner and feels Guerrero has a chance to be a leader and can learn more about that in the minors as well.
But can he help these Blue Jays? If he were a starting pitcher, he might already be with the big team. With Josh Donaldson in his walk year, Guerrero could be summoned if the veteran third baseman is traded in July or when he almost certainly departs after the season. Guerrero would probably outperform veteran DH Kendrys Morales, who was hitting .146, but again, Atkins worries about stagnating his best prospect’s overall game by having him only hit in the majors.
“What I can tell you is service time is not going to be the issue,” Atkins said about the criticism Guerrero is being held back to delay his arbitration/free agency. “That is not what this market deserves. It is not how anyone in this organization is wired.”
For now, Guerrero forms a Double-A left side with another son of a major leaguer, Dante Bichette’s boy Bo (also among the game’s best prospects). Meanwhile, the clock ticks as a country, city and sport wait for the next big thing.
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