TORONTO – The injury to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. guarantees what’s been assumed for months: baseball’s top prospect won’t be on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster when the season begins a little more than two weeks from now.
At the same time, the oblique strain that’s sidelining Guerrero Jr. for the next few weeks raises its own set of questions. On Tuesday morning, Mark Shapiro spoke at length with the Toronto media and touched on a wide range of subjects including, of course, the soon-to-be 20-year-old third base prospect.
While the Blue Jays are “not concerned” about his conditioning, Shapiro said he’d like to see Guerrero Jr. take full ownership of his career so that all aspects of his game continue catching up with his exceptional hitting ability. Ideally, a moment or series of moments would create a spark for Guerrero Jr. and he’d never look back.
"That light bulb going off is what you want a player to have," said Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and CEO. "And it never ends. The great veterans who have sustained careers as opposed to the guys who come up and have two or three years, those are the players who recognize that it doesn’t stop. You have to keep thinking about, ‘What is my advantage, how do I get better, what resources are out there for me?’"
What Shapiro didn’t say – what he couldn’t say – is that the Blue Jays wouldn’t have promoted Guerrero Jr. to the majors even if he was a perfectly polished player because baseball’s collective agreement allows teams to control players for seven years rather than six if they delay players’ debuts by two or three weeks in April. The Cubs did it with Kris Bryant, the Braves did it with Ronald Acuna Jr. and the Blue Jays were about to do it with Guerrero Jr. until the injury changed the discussion.
Service time looms over all of these decisions, and understandably so given the stakes involved under a flawed collective agreement. In that sense, there’s something significant left unsaid when executives speak on the record about prospects.
But even if the answers we get omit one key variable, Shapiro’s comments do shed some light on the organization’s thinking with Guerrero Jr. and the progress they’re hoping to see in the coming weeks.
"If you live your life with intent, what does that mean?" Shapiro said. "It’s beginning the shift from the mindset for a young player that, ‘OK, my day starts when I get here at 3:30’ to ‘My day starts when my alarm clock goes off and I start making choices.’ That first choice is ‘What do I eat for breakfast.’ That second choice is ‘What do I do from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.? Am I just playing video games, or am I trying to advance myself in some other way?’"
The way Shapiro sees it, those choices continue all day long as players arrive at the ballpark, greet maintenance workers, interact with teammates and hit the weight room.
"Same thing when I take batting practice," Shapiro continued. "Am I just going through batting practice as a rote exercise, or am I going to batting practice with the intent to get better?"
By the sounds of it, the Blue Jays want their players to focus on the small but important things they can control instead of dwelling on the things they can’t. As an example, Shapiro pointed to Ryan Borucki, whose work ethic and preparation helped him debut at the MLB level in 2019. While Shapiro acknowledged that it’d be “unfair” to expect perfection from a 19-year-old such as Guerrero Jr., it’s clear he’s hoping to see continued development from the club’s top prospect.
"The reality is there’s 50 decisions throughout the day that you can control," Shapiro said. "If you start to control 38 or 40 of those 50 decisions every day, you’re going to make decisions for Ross (Atkins). Ross isn’t going to have to make them. What you’re ultimately hoping to do is hand the development over to the player."
"We’re not doing it to them, we’re supplying them with resources, we’re giving them the objective feedback, we’re involving them with the process all with the goal of ‘You own your career.’ And you see that with players where all of a sudden the light goes off like, ‘There’s no Wizard of Oz behind a curtain pulling strings on people.’"
The grievance filed by the MLBPA on behalf of Bryant shows that some people in the industry feel that teams do pull strings. The apparent service time manipulation of David Price, Evan Longoria, Bryce Harper and others would back that up.
With that in mind, the MLBPA has been watching Guerrero Jr.’s case closely since last summer. Even if he’s still a teenager, he hit .381/.437/.636 with 20 homers and nearly as many walks as strikeouts last year. By all accounts, he could hit at the big-league level right now.
But, of course, executives on the team side gain nothing by talking about service time, so we hear about routines instead. And to be fair, routines do matter even if service time appears to drive decisions more. It’ll be a lot easier to contend if Guerrero Jr.’s more Miguel Cabrera than Miguel Sano. For all of the hype, there’s no guarantee that he reaches the heights of Cabrera or avoids the disappointment of Sano. To some extent, better habits on and off the field could surely help.
So what about that light bulb moment? Asked whether that’s happened yet for Guerrero Jr., Shapiro suggested there’s more work ahead.
"It’s all about getting a player to ultimately take accountability and ownership of his own career. It’s not something we can do for them," Shapiro said. "This is not university ball, this is not high school ball, this is professional sports. These guys are professionals. We’re trying to help them build that foundation and I think everything we’re going through right now with him is part of him building that set of experiences that will form the foundation of his career."
Maybe it’s all rhetoric, and Guerrero Jr. will still debut on April 12, the first day the Blue Jays can promote him without losing a seventh year of service. Based on what Shapiro’s saying, however, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Guerrero Jr. lingers in the minors a little bit longer.