Blue Jays confident Guerrero Jr. can make triple-A leap

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CHICAGO — Serving as the youngest player at double-A this season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. batted .402/.449/.671 over 61 games. He hit 14 home runs, driving in 60. He had upwards of four times more multi-hit games (30) than hitless games (7).

Yeah, that’ll play. And the Toronto Blue Jays are confident it will play at a higher level, as the club is set to promote Guerrero to its triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, next week. Currently attending his father’s Hall-of-Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, NY, Guerrero will make the five hour trip along I-90 to Buffalo on Monday, and make his debut with his new team the following evening.

For baseball’s top prospect, still only 19-years-old but possessing an uncommonly advanced approach at the plate, it will be an aggressive challenge. But there was little else for Guerrero to prove at double-A.

“I think it’s good for him. He’s earned it,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “If anybody’s earned it, he’s earned it. I’m sure he would’ve been there sooner if he hadn’t had the injury.”

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That injury was a strain of the patellar tendon in Guerrero’s left knee, an issue that befell him mere days before he was set to make the jump to triple-A in early June. He was sidelined for five weeks, but in 11 games since his return he’s picked up right where he left off, notching 15 hits and putting up a 1.053 OPS across three minor-league stops.

Now, Guerrero will finally make the jump to the highest level of baseball short of the majors, facing his toughest test yet. The average age in the International League this season is 26.6, more than seven years Guerrero’s senior. Pitchers in that league boast higher K/9’s with lower BB/9’s and HR/9’s than those in the double-A Eastern League. Generally, they pitch with a level of refinement and purpose Guerrero will have yet to encounter in his three professional seasons.

“You start seeing more breaking balls, that’s for sure. And better breaking balls,” Gibbons said. “A lot of times in the lower minor-leagues, you get guys with good arms but they haven’t really figured it out yet. I would guess that’s probably the difference. But I don’t think that will phase him.”

We’ll find out. Guerrero has demonstrated tremendous plate discipline to this point — he has more career walks, 131, than strikeouts, 125 — with a preternatural ability to recognize pitches. And the damage he does when he gets a pitch he wants to hit is undeniable. Blue Jays coaches rave about the exit velocities of the balls that come off his bat. Many believe he could put up strong numbers in the big-leagues today.

Of course, even if Guerrero continues to dominate at triple-A, it’s extremely unlikely he reaches the majors before the end of the 2018 season. The most likely scenario will see Guerrero play out the remainder of Buffalo’s season, and go to the Arizona Fall League — or even winter ball — if the team wants to get him more plate appearances.

That’s not only because Toronto’s big league club is playing its final games of the season mostly out of obligation, but also due to the realities of service time and free agency, which make it in the best interest of the Blue Jays front office to delay Guerrero’s MLB debut until a few weeks into the 2019 season. That way, the club will enjoy seven years of Guerrero’s services rather than six before he’s eligible for free agency.

It’s not fun for fans, and particularly not fun for the player, whose wages are supressed from their market value throughout the process. But those are the rules that have been collectively bargained. In the words of Max Holloway, it is what it is.

And anyway, that disheartening conversation is one for another day. For now, what matters is that Guerrero Jr. is one step closer to playing at Rogers Centre, and only a quick drive of the QEW away for Blue Jays fans who want to get a glimpse of the club’s top prospect in action.

“It’s going to be a good test for him,” Gibbons said. “But he’ll handle it like a champ.”

Happ thanks fans

Saturday, on a white board in the Blue Jays clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field, someone taped a message from JA Happ beside the starting lineup for all to see. Hours later, the club released that message to the public.

“That’s him all the way. And he means it. It’s heartfelt,” Gibbons said. “And he’s right on.”

Happ, of course, was traded to the New York Yankees this week as the Blue Jays continue to sell off short-term assets for long-term pieces. As one of the best starting pitchers available ahead of Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline, his departure was anticipated for weeks. But that didn’t make it any less difficult to swallow for Happ, who deeply enjoyed his time in Toronto since he signed with the Blue Jays as a free agent in November, 2015.

At the time, it was seen as an interesting decision by Toronto’s front office, particularly in the aftermath of that 2015 season, which was only the most successful the Blue Jays had enjoyed in more than two decades.

David Price had been acquired in a trade that July as part of an aggressive deadline blitz by then general manager Alex Anthopoulos. The left-hander pitched brilliantly down the stretch, posting a 2.30 ERA over 11 starts, and immediately endeared himself to not only his new team, but a long-suffering fanbase. He talked about how much he loved the city, the atmosphere, the fans. He bought his teammates scooters and bathrobes. He even went out of his way to compliment the stadium popcorn. It was good vibes all around.

Price was a pending free agent and in the prime of his career. As the offseason began, fans clamoured for him to be signed long term — for Price to become a franchise cornerstone in what was then seen as the beginning of a new competitive era of Blue Jays baseball.

But Toronto’s front office never offered Price a contract. They weren’t interested in committing the money — and, more importantly, the term — necessary to employ him. The Blue Jays moved quickly in another direction, signing another left-hander — Happ — to a three-year, $36-million contract. Price ultimately ended up in Boston, inking a seven-year, $217-million deal.

Blue Jays fans, to put it lightly, were not pleased. Happ had been a Blue Jay before, and it had not been pretty. Sure, he was coming off a stellar stretch with the Pittsburgh Pirates after he himself was traded to a contender at the deadline. But, when viewed in the context of his entire career, that strong run — Happ put up a 1.85 ERA over 11 starts with Pittsburgh — looked more like an exception than a rule. Price, meanwhile, was going to be with Boston for a long time, repeatedly returning to Rogers Centre to torment the team that wouldn’t pony up for his services.

Here’s how things have played out in the nearly three seasons since:

GS IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WAR
David Price 66 419 3.93 9 2.3 1.2 7.2
J.A. Happ 77 454.1 3.55 8.6 2.8 1.1 8.1

Happ said Saturday one of his goals when he signed that contract was to win over Blue Jays fans. Safe to say he was successful.

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