Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ready to go the distance after ‘awesome’ off-season

Arden Zwelling and Arash Madani look at the commitment shown by Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio, and Ken Giles’ status as closer for the Blue Jays.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Gabriel Guerrero — nephew of the legendary Vladimir Guerrero Sr., cousin of Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and “Gabby” to most — is a dead ringer for his uncle. Same long build as the lanky Hall of Famer, same wise face, even the same dreadlocks spilling out from beneath his cap.

This winter, the Blue Jays signed Gabriel to a minor-league deal, bringing the 26-year-old into the same organization as his much-renowned cousin, who you may have heard was the top prospect across baseball last season. This Friday, they both made the hour-plus trip to Publix Field in Lakeland to play a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers.

And it was there that a visiting clubhouse attendant approached Gabriel, asking him to sign a baseball for a charity auction. You want my signature? Gabriel asked. Of course, an autographed Vladdy Jr. ball would be a hot item, the clubbie replied. Sitting not far away, Gabriel’s little cousin thought it was hilarious.

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Gabriel said Friday before playing an MLB game with the actual Vladimir Jr. for the first time in their lives. “Vladdy’s always loved baseball since he was a kid. And he’s always been funny.”

Of course, Guerrero Jr. wasn’t supposed to be there at all. He was scheduled to stay back with the rest of Toronto’s regulars in Dunedin, taking batting practice and working through infield drills. But Guerrero woke up Friday morning itching to play. So, he texted his manager, Charlie Montoyo, who was happy to find room for him in his lineup if the 20-year-old was willing to make the trip.

“Right now, I don’t feel 100 per cent. So, that’s why I wanted to play today,” Guerrero said, sitting at his locker after the game for a rare interview conducted entirely in English. “We’re working hard on some things. And, I mean, it’s more work. I like to see more pitchers and see more guys that maybe I’ll face in the big leagues this season.

“You know what happens sometimes when we don’t feel really good at the plate — we hit a lot of groundballs, left and right. Right now, at the plate, every time, I’ve been trying to put the ball in the air. And I have groundballs that happen. They happen in the game. That’s why I wanted to play. Right now, I don’t feel 100 per cent. But I will come out of spring training feeling 100 per cent.”

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There is a microscope on Guerrero this spring. It would be there whether he was coming off a strong season or a disappointing one. The fact it’s the latter only changes the topics. How’s he look at third base? Is he driving the ball? Is he in better shape? Has he lost weight?

To whom much is given. Guerrero spent the first 19 years of his life unable to find a calibre of baseball he couldn’t dominate. But then, in his 20th, arriving at the highest level amidst great hype and expectations, adversity found him.

He lost three points off his minor-league walk rate, added six-and-a-half to his strikeout rate, and lost nearly 175 off his OPS over 514 above-average-yet-still-disappointing plate appearances. He struggled greatly at third base, posting some of MLB’s worst defensive metrics at the position. He hit way too many groundballs and left the yard only four times over the final two months. His team forced him to take sporadic days off due to a lack of conditioning.

“We’re being very clear,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said at the end of the season. “He knows he has to come in in overall better condition.”

And he has. Guerrero estimates he’s lost somewhere between 15-20 pounds, but isn’t sure because he hasn’t weighed himself recently. He says he hasn’t altered his diet of Dominican staples (“rice, beans, chicken — always,” he says.). Rather, that the weight has come off because he’s spent more time running this off-season than ever before.

He’s noticeably more broad in the shoulders and upper back, muscle he says he worked hard all winter to put on. When fans see him in his uniform on opening day, they won’t call it a transformation. But Guerrero’s certain he’s in better condition for this season than he was for his last.

“I feel like my shape is a lot more comfortable right now. My body is a lot better right now. That’s why I’ve been working hard in the off-season and doing whatever they want so that I can play every day,” Guerrero said. “I feel lighter. I like being in better shape. I think it’s way better. Because now I can do everything. Last year, maybe I would play five innings and I’m tired. Right now, I can play five, seven — and I feel good.”

Time will tell. Guerrero didn’t particularly enjoy his intermittent days off last season. He wants to play every day, like the rookie who stands to his left on the infield — shortstop Bo Bichette, who didn’t miss a game from the time he was called up in July until his season was cut short by a concussion.

The Blue Jays want Guerrero to play as often as possible, too. They merely felt his body composition last season left him at a higher risk of injury, particularly in his lower half as it carried his weight around on an artificial playing surface. If Guerrero’s hurt, or playing compromised, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

It’s why the Blue Jays sat down with him at the end of the year and committed Guerrero to a strict off-season plan. He was going to train more purposefully, pay better care to how he rested and recovered, and hold himself accountable to the goals he had set. And a lot of it was going to happen away from his home in the Dominican Republic.

“I think he’s physically stronger. He put the work in, and with where he is age-wise, I think it really translates,” said John Schneider, the Blue Jays major league coach who’s known Guerrero since he was 17. “He’s seen the length of the season, and people that have played in the league for a while, how they go about it. I think he’s just much more understanding of what it takes to get ready every day and for the season. He’s doing things with a little more intent now.”

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Guerrero spent much of his off-season in Dunedin training with Blue Jays strength and conditioning staff. He worked on his quickness and agility with footwork drills, his strength and stability with resistance bands, and his power with heavy weights, all under the direction of Scott Weberg, Toronto’s head strength and conditioning coach.

He took groundballs at third base regularly with Danny Solano, Toronto’s infield coordinator. Even when Guerrero went to Puerto Rico for a vacation, he worked, summoning Blue Jays third base coach and native Puerto Rican Luis Rivera to hit him groundballs while he was there.

“I called Luis, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m here. You here?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘OK, tomorrow we go to the field and we take groundballs,’” Guerrero remembered. “I like being with him. He’s always working hard with me to get better every day. My coaching, I like it. Every day they put in good work with me. We do a lot of drills. A lot of stuff at third. That’s why I’m feeling way better this year.

“I feel different at third base right now. I have more range. And I can run harder to first base. That’s why I’m feeling good. I feel healthier. Much healthier than last year. If you’re healthy, that’s good.”

That Puerto Rico trip and a few weeks spent at home around the holidays are the only breaks Guerrero took from working out in Dunedin this winter. His cousin Gabriel, who he’s extremely close with, barely saw him. Not until they were both in camp together in Dunedin.

“He’s skinnier. I know he looks bigger, but he’s in better shape now,” Gabriel said. “He worked a lot this off-season. I think he’ll come out really strong this year. He was working out most of the time on his body. And a lot with his swing, too.”


Gabriel was a highly touted prospect himself after signing as an international free agent with the Seattle Mariners in 2011. He played in the 2014 Futures Game and was part of a package the Mariners used to acquire Mark Trumbo and Vidal Nuno in 2015. Gabriel was ranked as the No. 5 prospect in Seattle’s system by MLB.com at the time.

So, he doesn’t know exactly what his cousin went through last season as baseball’s top prospect, but he has an idea. Gabriel, who spent 2019 at triple-A in the Miami Marlins organization, watched Guerrero’s MLB plate appearances as often as he could, especially late in the year after the minor-league season ended. He says he didn’t always recognize the hitter he was watching.

Those final weeks were challenging ones for Guerrero, as fatigue due to his lack of conditioning and frustration due to his poor results set in. Playing into September for the first time in his professional career, Guerrero’s chase rate increased and hard-hit rate plummeted, which is the opposite of what happens when he’s feeling his best.

“Yeah, I think he learned lessons. He’s now more mature at the plate and in the field, too. I think he’s matured a lot. He had to deal with a lot last year. I think this year is going to be better,” Gabriel said. “He’s just more mature now. He’s better at handling everything that comes with this. He’s better with people. He has a lot of fans. And a lot of people that want his time. He’s a lot better now at handling all the people and fans.”

Schneider lives near Dunedin and regularly stopped in to talk with Guerrero, who he managed at multiple minor-league levels, as he was working out this winter. He found a more comfortable, relaxed Guerrero than the one he was around in the Blue Jays clubhouse last August and September, when the groundouts and mistakes at third base were piling up.

“You look at it, last year with the hype machine — the guy couldn’t move without his picture being taken and someone asking for an interview. It comes with the territory, but it’s a lot,” Schneider says. “Now, a year under his belt. I think he’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove to people that the version of himself that we saw in the minors is going to be there in the majors.

“He’s excited. His off-season was awesome. He had a plan, went in and worked hard, and executed it. He really focused on it. He stuck to the plan that was laid out for him. And I think hopefully you’ll see dividends when the season really gets into it in August and September, which was his goal in the off-season.”

That’s the key here — being strong at the end of the season, not just the beginning. The positive steps Guerrero’s taken can’t stop come opening day. Improving and maintaining his conditioning and body composition will be constant tasks throughout the season, into next winter, and beyond. It’s literally his job. The Blue Jays hope to be playing consequential baseball late in seasons, and into October, sometime soon. A healthy, productive, committed Guerrero is fundamental to that.

This winter was a good step. As was Friday, when Guerrero volunteered himself for a long bus ride and additional work as he endeavours to be more prepared for this season than he was for the last. That he got to do it next to his older cousin was a nice bonus. Now he has to keep doing it.

“I did a lot of work in the off-season. Every day I put good work in, and did my best, and right now I feel great,” Guerrero said. “I just want to help the team win. It’s being ready for the games, staying in the games, and just playing more games, you know? If I’m playing more games, then we can have a better year. So, I’m going to keep working hard. Keep doing what I’ve been doing. Just working hard. That’s it.”

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