The unofficial countdown has begun. With each day that passes, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s a little closer to making his big-league debut.
After reaching triple-A last year, the best prospect in baseball is on the cusp of the majors and Blue Jays fans are understandably excited. While the Blue Jays can’t acknowledge as much without further agitating the MLBPA, they’ll likely delay Guerrero Jr.’s debut until a few weeks into the season. Doing so will assure the club of seven years of control rather than six–an easy call ahead of a season in which the Blue Jays aren’t expected to contend.
So when exactly will Guerrero Jr. debut? It’s among the questions I hear most often and it’s not going away any time soon. Here’s a closer look at the mechanics behind this decision…
Why are the Blue Jays likely to start Guerrero Jr. in the minors if he’s ready now?
Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement incentivizes teams to manipulate the service time of top prospects like Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuna Jr.
Because these players are so talented, teams want to be sure to get as much production as possible out of them before they hit free agency. In many cases teams make a trade of sorts, sacrificing a few weeks of a player’s rookie season because it’ll assure them of a full season when the player’s in his prime.
Here’s how the accounting works. Players need six full years of service time to hit free agency, and in baseball service time’s counted in days. A season lasts anywhere from 182-187 days, but any player who collects 172 days or more gets credit for a full year.
Or, as teams have figured out, any player who collects 171 days or fewer doesn’t get credit for a full year. Think it’s a coincidence that Bryant (171 days), Evan Longoria (170), David Price (164), Harper (159) and Acuna (159) just missed that 172-day threshold? It’s not. The common thread isn’t that those players needed more time to develop, it’s that their teams responded to incentives in the CBA and waited just long enough to get an extra year of control.
So when can the Blue Jays safely call Guerrero Jr. up?
The 2019 season will last 186 days. Anything more than 171 days of service time and Guerrero Jr. gets a full year of big-league time in 2019. That means he has to spend at least 15 days in the minors (186 – 171 = 15).
The regular season includes four days in March. Add in 11 days in April, and Guerrero Jr. would miss the requisite 15. That means the soonest Guerrero Jr. could safely debut is Friday, April 12, a home game against the Rays.
(Worth noting: the accounting would change here if Guerrero Jr. were already on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster. Under those circumstances, the club would have to option him at the end of spring training instead of simply reassigning him. Since players get full credit for optional assignments lasting fewer than 20 days, the Blue Jays would have to leave Guerrero Jr. at triple-A for at least 20 days.)
So when will they call him up?
Just because the Blue Jays can call Guerrero Jr. up on April 12 doesn’t mean you should buy those tickets just yet. In fact, I expect team decision makers to wait at least a few days longer than they technically have to.
The Cubs’ manipulation of Bryant’s service time was a little too transparent, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the MLBPA launched a grievance after Bryant fell one day short of a year’s service. Chances are the Blue Jays would prefer to avoid that kind of headache even if it means waiting a few more days.
Guerrero Jr.’s performance will factor in, too. It might be hard to imagine after last year, but if he starts slowly with the Bisons, there would be no point in rushing him up to the majors.
Alongside those considerations, there’s also the question of where the Blue Jays debut Guerrero Jr. If he debuts at home on April 12, he’ll face additional media scrutiny and fan attention. Of course that’s nothing new for Guerrero Jr., and he’ll have to handle the bright lights eventually. Still, there’s no harm in easing him into the majors. Just one week later the Blue Jays open a series in Oakland. Could that make for an easier transition?
Regardless, you can guarantee that the Blue Jays will consider the decision from every angle. As an organization focused on player development, they put plenty of thought into much smaller promotions than this. In the months ahead, the likes of Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins, Ben Cherington, Gil Kim and Charlie Montoyo will all consider ways of putting Guerrero Jr. in a position to succeed from the start.
Two things that won’t influence the team’s decision: selling tickets or filling needs at the MLB level. The Blue Jays will keep the bigger picture in mind instead of seeking short-term fixes.
What will the Blue Jays say about this?
As spring training nears, expect the Blue Jays to say that Guerrero Jr. has a legitimate chance of making the big-league team. They’ll note that he still has room to develop as a baserunner, defender and teammate but leave open the possibility that he’s in the lineup on opening day.
This will accomplish a couple of things. Saying anything else would alarm the MLBPA, for starters. And from a messaging standpoint, the Blue Jays are better off staying open to the idea that Guerrero Jr. could break camp. Otherwise, he and other minor-leaguers could get disgruntled.
That said, there’s little reason to believe that Guerrero Jr. will open the season with the Blue Jays. Considering the incentives in the CBA, can you really imagine him in the major-league lineup against the Tigers on March 28? As tempting as it might be to promote him right away, the short-term gain just wouldn’t be worth the long-term cost. Barring a radical departure in behaviour from a typically deliberate front office, Guerrero Jr. will spend at least a couple of weeks at triple-A.