CLEVELAND – Game after game, hype builds and anticipation of an imminent big-league debut grows for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who a month into the minor-league season is crushing at double-A New Hampshire, just as he did at low-A Lansing and advanced-A Dunedin last year.
The gifted Toronto Blue Jays prospect – who delivered one of the pre-season’s most electric moments with a walkoff homer at Olympic Stadium, where his Hall of Fame father starred – is certainly forcing the front office to consider a promotion, to triple-A at least if not the majors.
Through 22 games, the 19-year-old is batting .388/.452/.624 with 12 walks against 10 strikeouts and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports made an interesting case for the Blue Jays to immediately call up the phenom in a column this week that quoted a pair of longtime scouts saying he’s ready for The Show.
By no means should their words be taken as gospel, but others who watched Guerrero in the spring suggested the same even then, in spite of his age and relative lack of experience in the minors.
While Ross Atkins appreciates those sentiments, he suggests everyone looking at his numbers and clamouring for a promotion needs to pump the brakes.
“That’s just offence, right, when you say statistically,” the Blue Jays GM says in an interview. “There are so many more aspects of the game. And it’s only a month of performance above A-ball, as well. Look, man, we’re elated that he’s having this type of performance and it doesn’t look like this performance is going away, the way he’s doing it.
“Right now, we’re entirely focused on Vladdy as the best possible third baseman he could be, the best possible base-runner, of course offensive player, and teammate. And right now, we currently have a very good third baseman on our major-league team.”
Josh Donaldson’s return from the disabled list Thursday certainly covers that part of the equation, although the Blue Jays could always create space somewhere else on the diamond or at DH for Guerrero if they wanted to.
There are contractual control issues to consider, for sure, as starting his service time clock now could set him up for arbitration a year early as a Super 2 player, making his controllable years far more expensive if he performs as expected. Barring a demotion, it would also position him for free agency after his age 25 season, and a potential financial bonanza.
But Atkins insists that’s not a driving factor in their decision-making with Guerrero, the club more concerned about truncating some of his development focuses, particularly on defence, which requires game reps. Taking regular DH at-bats would stunt his defensive growth, an important consideration with Donaldson a pending free agent and Guerrero the heir apparent.
“It’s really two things,” Atkins said of the developmental priorities for Guerrero, “it’s first-step quickness and how that impacts his defence, and best possible teammate, because he has the potential to be a leader.”
Age hasn’t deterred other teams from bringing up their gilt-edged prospects, with the Atlanta Braves’ promotions of Ronald Acuna and Canadian Mike Soroka plus the Boston Red Sox’s recall of Rafael Devers last year some recent examples.
The Blue Jays employ an elaborate modelling and evaluation system led by player development director Gil Kim in assigning and promoting players. Given Guerrero’s special nature – only a small handful of players have had a similar career trajectory – there are very few comparables to base decisions on.
Still, “we work through a very detailed process to understand all of the risk factors, all of the objective and subjective information in and around what’s best for a player’s development,” said Atkins. “That’s thinking about the complete player, factoring in environment, factoring in competition level, factoring in resources such as coaches, who he’ll be playing alongside of and what that means for putting the best possible challenge in front of our players in the best possible environment. It’s not about the right time. We’re constantly doing that. We’re constantly factoring in all of those factors.”
That’s fine but Guerrero is likely to only further pressure that process as his bat, advanced for a prospect even several years older, outpaces the rest of his game by a wide margin. Eventually, he’s going to force the Blue Jays’ hand with his performance at the plate, regardless of how the Blue Jays try to maximize development without letting big-league needs impact that process.
The question will become, if it isn’t already now, how long can they wait in trying to avoid the pitfalls of bringing a prized prospect up too soon?
“There are a lot of ways to think about that but the biggest pitfall is that a player doesn’t realize their potential,” says Atkins. “Either they’re not the best decision-maker, they’re not the best at handling failure, they’re not the best defender, they’re not the most complete offensive player, or only a couple of those things happen when all of them could have been very positive.”
For the moment, the Blue Jays are staying disciplined to their process, even as Guerrero’s bat pressures them to speed things up, and the calls for his arrival grow louder and louder and louder.