Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the biggest deal at the Toronto Blue Jays minor-league complex this spring. His games were the easiest to find on the four busy fields—they had the most people in the aluminum bleachers or pressed up against the backstop. His batting practice was something else, too, especially when he’d slow down an entire session to watch one of his home-run balls clear the fence. Yep: He pimped BP.
He’s a little less leggy than his dad—a little pudgier, a different sort of torso. And on one particular day at spring training, when he was buzz-sawed by some good New York Yankees minor-league pitching, he still apparently hadn’t met a pitch he didn’t think he could hit. That part makes you smile. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. was a modest man of few words, little adornment and 449 home runs, known for hitting pitches the way tennis players return serves. “Since I was a little kid, I played with a lot of people watching me,” Guerrero Jr. says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes—sometimes—I feel pressure. But sometimes you just notice a lot of people looking at you.”
Of course people are looking at him. They want to see if and how he’s like his father, the legendary Vlady, the potential Hall of Famer who batted over .300 from 1997–2008, who never struck out more than 100 times in a season, all the while swinging at nearly half the pitches he saw that were not strikes. The man Cal Ripken Jr. called the “best bad-ball hitter” he’d ever seen.
In 1993, Guerrero Sr. signed with the Montreal Expos for $2,500. At that time, scouting in the Dominican Republic was an unregulated, often sleazy Wild West enterprise. Paper—birth certificates, contracts—typically meant zilch. Guerrero Sr. was in the Los Angeles Dodgers facility before Expos scout Fred Ferreira, dubbed the “Shark of the Caribbean,” snatched him away. The Dodgers’ director of Dominican operations, Ralph Avila, once told me that the Expos had “better eyes and, maybe most importantly, better ears,” than his organization. The Dodgers signed Wilton Guerrero, Guerrero Sr.’s brother, but thought Guerrero Sr. was more like Albino, an older brother they’d already released.
Guerrero Jr.? Hell, you could find video of him hammering tape-measure homers three years ago, which is why the Blue Jays gave him $3.9 million to sign with them three months after he turned 16—a year and a half after they first saw him in person.
That was in 2014. Former GM Alex Anthopoulos and his front-office brain trust had no clue who they were watching at a February workout session in the Dominican Republic, an annual event held by the Jays’ former international scouting director Ismael Cruz. That year, Cruz told Anthopoulos and Co. he had invited some 14-year-olds. “I remember [assistant GM] Tony LaCava looking over to us and saying, ‘I don’t know how to scout a 14-year-old,'” Anthopoulos said in a recent interview, laughing. One of the 14-year-olds hit a home run to straightaway centre. “I asked who that was, and Ismael said, ‘Vlady’s kid,'” Anthopoulos said. From that point on, Guerrero Jr. had everybody’s attention within the Blue Jays organization–and in other organizations, too. His comparable at the time, many believed, was Minnesota Twins prospect Miguel Sano—with Guerrero Jr. said to be a shade more advanced. “He was a really understated kid, without any sense of entitlement,” Anthopoulos said. “We worked him out in the outfield and didn’t think he moved that well. So I asked him what position he liked to play—you know, where he had the most fun—and he said third base. I said, ‘OK: You’re a third baseman.'”
There is no bigger gamble in free agency than the international free agent. Think about it: Would you bet $3.9 million on a 16-year-old? Any 16-year-old? Now toss in the cultural and physical vagaries of a kid who, despite being born in Montreal, spent most of his time in the Dominican Republic, with the exception of trips to Anaheim and Baltimore to be with his father when he was older. Players from the island are not draft-eligible, so it’s all about the power of the pocketbook.
Anthopoulos, now an adviser with the Dodgers, resolved that he would not make the same mistake with Guerrero Jr. he made with Cuban free agent Aroldis Chapman when Chapman defected in 2009. The Jays had money to sign him, but Anthopoulos needed to get personally involved to close things and failed to do so; he needed to ensure his scouts had sufficient looks at Chapman, and he failed to do so. Anthopoulos also remembered how some in the organization worried about the money they were giving a young Mexican pitcher named Roberto Osuna. “Dumpy body,” was how one Blue Jays official referred to Osuna, who ended up as the closer for the 2015 American League East champions. For Anthopoulos, this was another reminder of how prime talent can acclimate to culture, how different a player can look at 20 than he did at 16.
It was with these lessons in mind that Anthopoulos flew to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day, 2015. Cruz met him at the airport, then Anthopoulos visited Vladimir Jr.’s mother, speaking to her in French, since she’s from Montreal. “That was weird,” Anthopoulos said. “We’re in a Dominican house, having a Dominican lunch with a Dominican family, and I’m speaking French.”
If the son is less a teenage mystery than Guerrero père was, he’s also a much less reticent interview. He smiles when asked about his grandmother, who famously moved to Montreal to be with her son while Guerrero Sr. was with the Montreal Expos from 1996 to 2003. He repeats words for emphasis. Uses hand gestures. Makes eye contact. His father, bless him, adopted Fernando Valenzuela’s approach to media relations: Drop F-bombs and cut up with your teammates, and look for an interpreter during interviews. In Guerrero Sr.’s case, it wasn’t all about language or impoliteness, though. “Hey, he doesn’t talk a great deal to us Latin American players, either,” Moises Alou, his teammate in Montreal, once said. Guerrero Sr., had, after all, grown up with the nickname “el Mudo”: the mute.
And while Guerrero Sr. was given a chance to hone his skills at a time when only hardcore seamheads paid attention to the minor leagues, his son’s road to the majors will be well chronicled.
The Blue Jays don’t yet know where Guerrero Jr. will play this season. He’ll be in extended spring training until the end of May, at which point he’ll be assigned to a single-A affiliate. “He’s a little more advanced than most 17-year-old international free-agent signings,” says Gil Kim, Blue Jays director of player development. “He has raw power, hand-eye coordination and baseball feel. He’s a confident player who’s working hard on improving his athleticism and overall body strength. The mechanics are good, but really, it’s his natural talent, mentality and approach that make him advanced for his age.”
Guerrero Jr. is ready for the inevitable comparisons to his dad, he says. He laughs when asked if he will eschew batting gloves, as was his father’s signature—”I wear them sometimes,” he says—and smiles when asked whether he has his father’s, um, exuberant approach to swinging at pitches. “I guess yes… well, no, I don’t swing at the bad pitches, but other than that I do almost everything else like him,” he says. Kim says Guerrero Jr. likes to “attack pitches, but he’s not necessarily a free swinger.”
True story: I was standing by one of the fields at the Expos spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., one morning many years ago when my former Montreal Gazette colleague Michael Farber called me over. “Listen,” he said. In front of us was Vladimir Guerrero, shagging flies during batting practice, and every now and then he’d uncork a throw and, I swear by the baseball gods, you could hear the seams sizzle through the air as the ball left his hand. You’ll just have to take my word for it; like so much of the legend of Vlady—the doubles and homers hit on pitches that bounced in front of the plate, etc.—it’s all word of mouth. It’s too early to tell whether Vladimir Jr. possesses the same magic that turned his father into a near-mythic figure, but this much is clear: Unlike his father, he can’t surprise. Only disappoint.