The throw from Trent Thornton was a little high and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., plucked it out of the air with his mitt, pulled it down quickly and said something audible only to Thornton, Bo Bichette and a few others including first base coach Luis Rivera. Chuckles all around. Thornton smiled broadly. Maybe some day, we’ll know whether Guerrero deep down expected he’d eventually move across the diamond. Maybe.
John Schneider managed Guerrero, Jr., at single-A Dunedin and double-A New Hampshire when he was blazing his way through the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system, back when the organization was determined he’d be a third baseman. Guerrero, Jr., is no dummy, so it stands to reason that he heard comments about how his weight and defensive deficiencies were going to necessitate a shift across the diamond.
Guerrero must surely have been aware that the major difference in his game and that of his Hall of Fame father was defence, in particular a god-gifted arm that Guerrero, Sr., used as a weapon in right field. Had to, right? “From what I remember,” said Schneider, now a Blue Jays major league coach, “when it did come up he’d just kind of smile, shrug and say ‘I’ll do my best.’”
Even a little live quarantine batting practice is too good an opportunity to let pass for the Blue Jays new first baseman. On this night, Guerrero would be shadowed by third base coach and infield instructor Luis Rivera, who stood in the first base coaches box at the Rogers Centre as Guerrero tried to approximate as much as possible the type of plays he’d need to make. At one point, Rivera counted out nine steps and pointed to some sort of marker for Guerrero to position himself. Infielders such as Santiago Espinal and Bo Bichette were told to bounce throws, flip throws, fiddle around with arm angles. “Vlady’s awesome,” Thornton said later. “Everyone is in his corner. It’s nothing that crazy, in my opinion. Just a different side of the field.”
Other than the catcher and pitcher, there is no position that touches the ball as much as the first baseman. Yet when Montoyo announced the move last week, the only sound was a huge sigh of relief from Blue Jays fans who cringed at Guerrero’s play at third in his 2019 rookie season. Guerrero at third was one of those areas of convergence where the eye test matched the analytics.
There was a sense of inevitability to the move; the only question was how it would be sold to Guerrero. Face-saving measure? A means of freeing up his mind to just rake and hit bombs at the plate? A move spurred by the acquisition of the kind of free-agent who would put the team over the top? A move brought on by the drafting and development of a star third baseman ready to play every day, right now? Clearly, this was more because of the first two notions – no disrespect to Travis Shaw or Jordan Groshans.
So, what should we expect?
“I’ve always said if you can play third base, you can play first,” said Schneider. “At third, you’re asked to do so much. You’re moving backward and forward and laterally. Yes, he’s going to see the ball off the bat differently, but it probably won’t be coming as fast. The biggest thing for (Guerrero) is going to be getting used to having to hold the runner … to get his pre-pitch set-up down, both for lefty hitters and righties. But I think he’s going to be fine. People just see a guy who was always destined to be a superstar. They don’t see the work ethic and what a good teammate he is.”
I remember an interview in August, 2018, with Bobby Meacham, who managed Guerrero at triple-A Buffalo and talked up his baseball I.Q. “Everybody talks about ‘making adjustments’ in this game,” said Meacham, “and in order to do that you need to be able to retain information and apply it the next time somebody mentions it to you. That’s what Vladdy is like; you don’t have to tell him things three or four times.”
About the difference between Guerrero, Jr.’s defence and Guerrero, Sr.? Make no mistake: you could stand near the elder Guerrero in spring training and when he felt like it he’d unleash one of those throws you could hear coming out of his hand and then he’d look over at you, smiling. Yet in his career, he had just one more outfield assist from right (126) than he was charged with errors (125.) In fact, it wasn’t until his fifth full season that he recorded a year with more assists than errors. His defensive metrics weren’t great: he could be scatter-armed, and he could take some mightily unhinged routes to balls. Comparatively, the best right-fielder I covered with the Montreal Expos, Hall of Famer Larry Walker, had 150 assists out of that position … and committed 47 errors.
All of which is to say that it took Guerrero, Sr., time to harness his talents. His body went through changes, too, although he was never as hefty as his son and he didn’t have to endure the scrutiny his son will not get. How will Guerrero, Jr., handle the attention that will come with this move? Back to that talk with Meacham, who like Schneider would tell the player that he was always going to be a focal point, that he would never be able to blend into the background or be, simply, Employee No. 27. His teammates, opponents, fans … coaches … would always know where he was and what he was doing. The game won’t let him hide. It never does.
• We had Scott Boras on Writers Bloc on Thursday and figured he’d be ready to skewer Major League Baseball over its botched COVID-19 testing. Wrong. Instead, he pointed to the low rate of positives from intake testing and pointed to the Korean League as a sign that baseball “can be done safely,” and didn’t seem at all annoyed about the reported testing snafus …
• Buster Posey’s decision to opt-out got the headlines but for the Blue Jays, the fact that the White Sox’s Michael Kopech has pulled out of the 2020 season could have an impact on the race for post-season positions in the AL because the White Sox are going to be trendy pick and Kopech’s recovery from Tommy John surgery was going to add a nuclear arm to the race …
• I’m not going to get into the whole Randal Grichuk vs. Marcus Stroman Twitter feud that broke out this weekend, but I will say this: you can never go wrong by not liking or re-tweeting anything by Aubrey Huff or by not responding to Stroman on social media. Just … don’t …
• Watching MLS give its players a powerful stage to celebrate and support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and watching how Formula-1 has completely botched it makes me wonder whether Major League Baseball has figured out how it will create a space for a similarly appropriate response. Put me down as hopeful but skeptical …
• Do not be surprised by the sudden increase in talk about possible expansion: the game will need to re-coup lost revenue caused by the pandemic and if the Mets are sold, as expected, for $2 billion in the middle of this mess, well, why wouldn’t owners tap into this idea? A few caveats, though: relocation doesn’t bring in the money of expansion, yet Tampa Bay and Oakland need a resolution of stadium issues; with a new CBA on the horizon, placing the possibility of more jobs for players on the table is a neat bargaining ploy and; no, Vancouver won’t be getting a team. So just stop …
• Good news for folks who want baseball back in Montreal: Rays owner Stuart Sternberg still does, too.
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH
It took a pandemic to finally put to rest the idiocy that was asking pitchers to hit in an era of expanded rosters and too many boring, result-free plate appearances from many position players – never mind the pitchers. The designated hitter will be in effect in the National and American leagues this season and while nobody will come out and say it … the DH isn’t going away in the senior circuit. Ever. That’s good. Know what else is good – and I can’t believe I’m saying this, to be honest? The idea of deciding a tie game by placing a baserunner on second at the start of every half-inning after the ninth. I hated the idea, much like I think the three-batter minimum is an over-reach – a dumbed-down difference, like chess and checkers, the way I see it – until USA Today’s Bob Nightengale relayed a conversation he had with Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who would watch people streaming to the exits in extra innings to beat the traffic or catch a train or get the kids home and who one day asked Nightengale: “Why are we the sport with the worst overtime?” Good question. It’s not just deadline-frayed sports reporters who cringe at extra innings (let’s face it: the internet has done away with deadlines as well as newspapers) but fans, too, who decide there are better things to do than wait one, two, three, four … however many innings it takes if the score is tied after nine. “Bonus baseball?” Not any more it isn’t. There has been some suggestion that baseball might want to fudge things a bit and wait until the 11th or 12th inning to utilize the runner and give teams the 10th to try and work it our normally but … nah. If we’re going to do it, let’s start it in the 10th. Let’s dive in.
This is the first of what will be a baseball-only Monday column. Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p,m, ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights along the Sportsnet Radio Network. Starting July 20, he will host Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET.