Debut could be ‘soon’ for Vlad Jr. with path to Blue Jays finally clear

MLB insider Jon Morosi joins the Starting Lineup to discuss why Blue Jays are lucky to have Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington’s experience in development and grooming for top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

TORONTO – While the Blue Jays hosted the Rays at Rogers Centre Friday night, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. played in a triple-A game that had quiet significance for both the team and its top prospect.

As of Friday, the Blue Jays are officially 15 days into the season. Even if Guerrero Jr. were to arrive in Toronto Saturday and remain there all year he wouldn’t get credit for a full year in the majors. Whether you call it service time manipulation or simply a coincidence, there’s no debate about Guerrero Jr.’s timeline to free agency. He’s now Blue Jays property for the next seven seasons.

Which is great, if you’re worried about the 2025 Blue Jays. They’ll have Vlad. And soon enough, the 2019 Blue Jays will too. With service time considerations no longer in play, the discussion around Guerrero Jr. shifts entirely to baseball again.

In conversation with Toronto media Friday, GM Ross Atkins offered some direction regarding the timeline for baseball’s top-rated prospect. Guerrero Jr.’s big-league debut isn’t imminent by any stretch, but when the Blue Jays begin their next homestand on April 23, Guerrero Jr. may well be in the lineup.

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“It’s sooner than later,” Atkins said. “For a player that has played as much as he has, as much success as he’s had, now it’s about getting built up and getting into really just regular season form and being hopefully ready to make a debut at some point soon.”

How soon is soon? As ever, there are many factors to consider when it comes to a prospect of this calibre. Among the considerations for the Blue Jays decision makers: Guerrero Jr.’s timing at the plate, his defensive play and his habits before and after games.

First, Guerrero Jr. simply needs at bats. After a four-game stint with the Class A Dunedin Blue Jays, the 20-year-old returned to triple-A Thursday with a home run, a double and a walk. Still, he missed considerable time after suffering an oblique strain in spring training.

As manager Charlie Montoyo said, “It’s not fair for him to just get 20 at bats and then come hit in the big-leagues.”

On defence, the Blue Jays like their third basemen playing far off the third base line, so Montoyo asked Bobby Meacham, his triple-A counterpart, to ensure Guerrero Jr. positions himself accordingly.

“If he’s playing well defensively and he’s swinging the bat for 20, 30 at bats, whatever it is, then Bobby’s going to let us know,” Montoyo said.

There’s also the question of workload considering that Guerrero Jr. has yet to play on three consecutive days. He’ll likely rest at some point this weekend, after which he’ll play three in a row to see how he recovers. When he does arrive in Toronto, Atkins wants to be sure “there are no limitations whatsoever on his playing time.”

Guerrero Jr. has slimmed down a little since spring training, and now weighs closer to 240 pounds than his listed weight of 250. While the Blue Jays say his weight isn’t a concern for a player with such a large frame, this trimmer physique might help his lateral movement. Regardless, Atkins says Guerrero Jr. has ‘drastically’ improved his off-field routines in recent months.

“The injuries have fortunately been relatively minor, but he has matured from each one of them,” Atkins said. “He has grown from each one of them. He has a better understanding of his body, he has a better understanding of what preparation and recovery mean for him because ultimately it really is up to him and we will do everything we can to support him.”

“The better he gets at setting expectations for himself and routines for himself, the better he’ll be,” Atkins continued. “Elite players have exceptional routines and exceptional consistency to how their day transpires.”

The Blue Jays don’t appear to have a strong preference for debuting Guerrero Jr. at home vs. on the road. Atkins’ priority can’t be selling tickets, nor can he worry about ensuring that the Bisons get the chance to show Guerrero Jr. off to fans in Buffalo before their next home game, which doesn’t take place for another week.

In theory, the Blue Jays could delay Guerrero Jr.’s debut until mid-June to limit his earnings in arbitration. A debut before then would set Guerrero Jr. up for super two status and four trips through the potentially lucrative arbitration system, but holding him back would be an even more blatant manipulation of his service time and the only advantage would be financial. As such, the Blue Jays appear to have no interest in delaying Guerrero Jr.’s debut that long.

Instead, he’ll likely arrive in Toronto this month. Within a week, Guerrero Jr. should have 25-30 plate appearances at triple-A. If he continues crushing triple-A pitching, it’s at least imaginable that he could debut in Oakland by next weekend. Even if adjusting to game speed takes a little longer, there’s a clear path to a debut when the Blue Jays return home April 23.

At 20 years old, Guerrero Jr.’s far from a finished product. Those off-field habits remain a work in progress. Mistakes await him at third base. Surely he’ll even slump at the plate here and there.

But with his oblique fully healed and the service time delays over with, the obstacles that once slowed his arrival to Toronto are disappearing. It’s undeniable now: Guerrero Jr.’s time is coming soon.

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