DUNEDIN, Fla. – When the Blue Jays are batting and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s spot in the lineup approaches, players will say things rarely heard about teenage prospects.
“I hear people saying, ‘I hope the (batter) gets on so Vlad can hit,’” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “That’s a good compliment for a 19-year-old.”
One seat over, bench coach Dave Hudgens can see why the young third baseman gets so much attention.
“Guerrero sticks out,” Hudgens said. “His bat speed, his bat-to-ball skills.”
That combination has always allowed Guerrero Jr. to crush pitches, and now that the Blue Jays track their batting practice sessions with advanced technology, we know with certainty that he has the hardest-hit BP ball of the team’s spring at 118.1 m.p.h. For context, just six players hit a ball at least 118 m.p.h. last year: Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Carlos Gonzalez, Daniel Palka, Gary Sanchez and Mike Trout.
“Things are going really well,” Guerrero Jr. acknowledged through interpreter Tanya Bialostozky after going one for three with a double in Thursday’s game.
Even Ross Atkins, who said Tuesday that he just doesn’t see Guerrero Jr. as a major-league player, acknowledged two days later that the soon-to-be 20-year-old wouldn’t be overwhelmed at the MLB level.
“Could he come up and have really good at bats? Probably better than anyone in the minor leagues at this point, sure,” Atkins said.
“His discussion in and around hitting is extremely advanced,” the GM added.
There’s no debate, then: Guerrero Jr. can mash. So what else does he need to do before convincing the Blue Jays that he’s a major-league player? First and foremost, he simply has to wait until at least April 12, by which point the Blue Jays will have delayed his free agency by a full year. Regardless of what the Blue Jays say, that’s undeniably the driving force here, and understandably so.
Service time manipulation aside, the Blue Jays are intent on using Guerrero Jr.’s first big-league camp as a chance to develop him as a player, with defence, baserunning, preparation, nutrition and rest all areas of interest to the team. In theory, a month alongside established professionals should help Guerrero Jr., as will the exposure to big-league pitching.
“Let’s tap into all of that,” Atkins said. “These 30-plus days and these games that are coming and being exposed to the daily discussions with Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak and Kevin Pillar. The daily exposure to the best pitching in the world. That will be incredible exposure and development for him.”
Last summer, soon after a knee injury sidelined Guerrero, Atkins said his off-field routines could be better. In the months since, the Blue Jays like what they’ve seen.
“They have evolved for Vladdy and they have evolved for every young player and they will continue to,” Atkins said. “His worth ethic is fantastic. The person and how he’s handled expectation is really, really remarkable. How he’s handled the setback of the (2018) injury is remarkable.”
As Guerrero Jr. evolves in the months ahead, the Blue Jays will shape and re-shape their plans for him to be sure that he’s getting what he needs. Of course, some elements of his game need no refinement.
“I will never, ever change my swing,” Guerrero Jr. said.
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Guerrero Jr.’s physical presence is imposing whether he’s at the plate or simply walking to the batting cage. Eventually, that could limit his foot speed, though he moves deceptively well now. But when asked about the prospect’s size, Atkins said the Blue Jays are unconcerned and simply looking to make the most of it.
“There aren’t many young individuals that are 200-plus pounds at 19-years-old,” Atkins said. “He is a physical, physical human being. So we think about that in terms of maximizing it. How do we tap into all of that power? How do we tap into all of that range of motion and agility and not just rely on the fact that, yes, he is a very gifted hitter that is going to hit for a long time.”
The potential for greatness exists, especially if the Blue Jays’ plans to make the most of his considerable talent go well. In the meantime, Guerrero’s still a 19-year-old excelling at the game he loves.
“That kid’s having fun,” Montoyo said. “For sure.”