DUNEDIN, Fla. — There were other callers for Vladimir Guerrero, the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks believed to be among them, but ultimately he decided the best place to pursue his goal of reaching the 500-home run plateau was with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The spiky dreadlocked slugger, looking reinvigorated after a physically lumbering year with the Baltimore Orioles in 2011, likes the symmetry of a return north of the border, where he broke into the big leagues and established himself as a star with the Montreal Expos, a period he still recalls fondly.
All that remains to bring things full circle is convincing the Blue Jays his 37-year-old body is ready.
“I feel like this where I started, it’s not the same city but it’s Canada, and I think going back there is like (being) renewed,” Guerrero said Tuesday through interpreter Jay Alou, one of his representatives at Proformance. “I feel like I’m going to be very, very comfortable.”
So far, the nine-time all-star and likely Hall of Famer certainly seems to be, moving with an ease he lacked last year with the Orioles, when all of his 145 games came at DH or pinch-hitting.
He’s been playing left field and is intent on proving he can do the job in the outfield again, both because he feels good enough to do it, and to help his future value.
“I feel a lot better,” said Guerrero, regularly flashing his trademark toothy grin. “Last year I had some pain in my left knee, I’ve never had surgery on that one, I’ve had surgery on the right one and that would cause me to put a lot of stress on the left.
“But I feel very, very strong and right now, no pain, and I feel really good about it.”
Guerrero showed off some of that by going 2-for-4 with a stolen base and a run scored in an extended spring training game Tuesday, with assistant general manager Tony LaCava carefully monitoring his performance.
The Blue Jays have repeatedly said there is no timetable for him to join the club, and Guerrero himself admitted that he needs more repetition, but he’s been speeding up the process with how he’s looked.
Next steps for him include an assignment to a minor-league team for some more competitive games, and he could be sent out as soon as Wednesday.
Triple-A Las Vegas is one possibility, but going slower and having him climb the ladder is under consideration. As for when he might don a Blue Jays uniform, that’s still up in the air.
“I don’t think he’s ready for major-league pitching quite yet,” said manager John Farrell. “I can understand you wanting to get your arms around when. We’re trying to get that as well.
“The early view has been positive from a physical standpoint. It’s a matter of repetition at this point, getting the timing down a little bit more consistent.”
Guerrero, a career .318/.379/.553 hitter with 449 home runs and 1,496 RBIs over 16 big-league seasons, is 51 homers short of the 500 mark he describes as his “goal right now” because it “would pretty much seal my career. That’s my immediate goal.”
“I would love to play for three or four more years,” he added later, “but definitely, that is a number that I can give you, the 51 home runs to get out of the way.”
Guerrero signed with the Blue Jays shortly after switching agents some three weeks ago, following a full off-season and spring training without a contract. Like other veteran DH types, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, he had to settle for a minor-league deal and force his way onto the roster.
The long wait didn’t rattle his belief that he could still play.
“I was patiently waiting to see where I was going to go,” said Guerrero. “I was just going to keep working until something showed up. But then when I heard Blue Jays, I’m excited to go to Toronto.”
Many of the young Latin players at extended spring training have rallied around Guerrero, frequently chatting him up and posing for pictures with him, but so too have the North American kids.
The impression he’s left isn’t solely from the flurry of jaw-dropping home runs he’s launched during batting practice — some are estimated to be near 500 feet — but also from setting an example for all the youngsters to emulate.
“The thing is he doesn’t big league anybody,” said Daniel Norris, a left-hander chosen by the Blue Jays in the second round last year. “I don’t talk to him, I’m kind of nervous, but me and (Canadian right-hander) Tom Robson were walking out one day and he was sitting there talking to some of the Latin guys. Tom walks up and pats him on the shoulder, ‘What’s up man?’ And (Guerrero) was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He just talks to everybody and that’s awesome, a Hall of Famer and he takes time to talk to everybody.
“That’s good for us to see because there are going to be big leaguers and Hall of Famers here and for them to see a guy like that is an awesome example. He’s a Hall of Famer but he still treats people with respect. That’s really cool.”
That it is for all involved, and they’re hoping it only gets better.