TORONTO – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has accomplished just about everything that a prospect could by the age of 18, advancing to high-A while batting .305/.402/.473 with more walks than strikeouts.
But he doesn’t turn 19 until March, so you’re not about to hear Toronto Blue Jays decision makers suggest that he’ll play in the big leagues next year.
“I don’t ever put ceilings on any human being. That’s why we do this. That’s why we love working in sport,” GM Ross Atkins said Tuesday at his season-ending media availability. “Now, the likelihood that he impacts our 2018 team I think is very low, but at the same time, I would never put a ceiling or a limit on a player.”
For context, no teenagers appeared at the MLB level this year. The league’s youngest player, Victor Robles of the Nationals, is two full years older than Guerrero and he was just a September call-up. So it’s quite likely that plenty of time remains before the Blue Jays have to decide whether Guerrero Jr. or Josh Donaldson plays third base–not that it would be a problem in the first place.
“Those two players are so talented in isolation that you don’t have to think about ‘oh you have this player, therefore we don’t need this other asset,’” Atkins said. “They’re both so potentially productive in one and productive in the other already that there’s a way to have both of those guys on your team.”
In Guerrero and Bo Bichette, the Blue Jays have two of baseball’s top prospects. Beyond those two, Atkins said the Blue Jays are more confident in the depth of their system than they were at this time in 2015 or 2016. Thanks to the development of players such as Nate Pearson, Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays front office has more names to choose from when ranking players internally.
“We’re looking up at a group of 30-40 players that have a significant chance to make an impact,” Atkins said. “Guys (in the front office) are having debate in and around the 30th player as to which guy’s going to be more productive. That’s the thing about player development in professional baseball: with time, value changes, production changes and development happens.”
GIBBONS ‘PART OF OUR SOLUTION’
While Atkins described the 2017 season as a ‘massive disappointment’ he said he was pleased with the work of manager John Gibbons along the way.
“He’s done a remarkable job of managing the bullpen. He’s done a remarkable job of getting a core group of talent two out of the last three years into a near-World Series team,” Atkins said. “I feel strongly that he’s a part of our solution. Love going to work with him every day.”
The GM said that he aligns with Gibbons “in just about every way,” partly because Gibbons strives to build a culture where players aren’t afraid to fail.
“They respect him because Gibby understands their challenges very well, understands the power of allowing individuals to be individuals,” Atkins said. “Not fearing mistakes.”
For example, the GM pointed to a Sept. 12 game against Baltimore, where Richard Urena led off the eighth inning of a game the Blue Jays trailed with a single. Instead of holding up at first, he tried to reach second only to be thrown out. By some definitions it was a rookie mistake, but Gibbons encouraged Urena instead of reprimanding him. The 21-year-old hit a walk-off single the following inning.
“That doesn’t always happen,” Atkins said. “It’s not just as simple as the decision to encourage him and pat him on the back. It’s an environment where guys don’t fear mistakes and can realize potential.”
NEXT STEPS FOR ALFORD
The Blue Jays came close to calling Anthony Alford back to the majors in September, but ultimately decided against it. The front office didn’t want Alford idling on the bench and expected Steve Pearce to get plenty of at-bats in left field down the stretch.
Had Atkins known that Pearce’s back would flare up, Alford would have returned to the MLB level. Instead, the 23-year-old will wait a little longer for his next chance. Alford, who ranked 38th on Baseball America’s mid-season list of top MLB prospects, will likely open the season at triple-A Buffalo along with Dalton Pompey, Dwight Smith Jr., Roemon Fields and potentially Teoscar Hernandez.
That group includes considerable upside, reinforcing the notion that Toronto’s upper-level outfield depth has improved compared to this time last year.
JAYS WILL ‘LOOK TO IMPROVE’ BACKUP CATCHER
Luke Maile hit better once he returned from a knee injury, and looked more “physical and powerful” to Atkins. Still, Maile hit just .226 with a .573 OPS in September, so it comes as no surprise that the Blue Jays will look to upgrade on existing backup catching options such as Maile and Raffy Lopez.
“Can we improve? We will look to improve,” Atkins said. “We will do everything we can to improve, but it’s not just as simple as deciding that in a vacuum because of the opportunity cost of what that means on a potential right-fielder, potential middle-infield depth.”
Simply put, the more the Blue Jays spend on a backup catcher, the less they can direct toward other needs. Jansen’s rise through the minors opened eyes in the organization, but Gibbons recently said he’s more likely to start the season getting regular reps at triple-A.