TORONTO — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reclined on a couch, flashing a goofy smile as he joked around in Spanish with a small assemblage of teammates. On the other side of the room, Bo Bichette plopped down in front of his locker, scrolling through a phone and pushing his hair back behind the white bandana wrapped around his head. Making themselves at home in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, two of baseball’s top prospects looked like they fit right in.
Of course, Guerrero and Bichette are still teenagers, minor-leaguers, works-in-progress. That’s not their clubhouse yet. But the Blue Jays — who brought 16 minor-leaguers north for a rookie development program this week — hope it will be sometime soon. The club hopes that scene from Friday afternoon was merely a prelude of what’s to come, when one day, if all goes well, Guerrero and Bichette do call that clubhouse home.
“I feel really comfortable with the bunch of nice guys we have here — I feel really good,” said Guerrero, the 18-year-old third baseman. “I grew up watching my dad play the game. … And now I’m here and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I can do this now.’”
“I can’t wait to get up here,” said Bichette, the 19-year-old shortstop. “It’s kind of cool coming in here and actually having a locker. It’s just cool to be up here and learning my way around.”
That’s a big part of why the Blue Jays hold this annual development camp — merely showing guys the ropes. Removing the mystique and incognizance of big-league life so that when these prospects do reach the majors, nothing is unexpected or foreign.
To that end, the Blue Jays attempt to expose their young players to as much as possible. Each day begins with a strength and conditioning workout in the Blue Jays’ recently-renovated weight room at Rogers Centre. Later in the morning, the players attend a seminar with a senior member of the organization, whether from the front office, high-performance department or major-league coaching staff.
In the afternoon, there’s another workout, this time on-field and baseball specific. And after that, another speaker’s session with a leader within the organization. The presentations are detailed and wide-ranging, from strategies for how to interact with the media to advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety.
Some days there are field trips. This year the group went to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital to interact with patients and to Coca-Cola Field, the home of the triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
“You hope that the players come here and they acclimate a little bit to the faces and the facilities, the surroundings, the daily routine and lifestyle of a Blue Jays big leaguer,” said Gil Kim, Toronto’s director of player development. “And you hope they learn from, not just each other, but from the staff and the presenters that we have here. We have a blast this week. I think all of us do. It’s a great experience.”
“It’s awesome,” adds Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. “You hear us talk about it ad nauseam — the importance of culture, the importance of environment, the importance of understanding we are one team. We represent a nation. We represent a remarkable city. And we want to be, and will be, the best place to play and work in all of professional sport.
“That doesn’t just happen because you say it’s going to happen. It takes work; it takes time. And this is one of the small pieces to that equation.”
Prospects take time, too, and one of the biggest topics of discussion around the Blue Jays this season will be just how much time it’ll take for Guerrero and Bichette to arrive in the majors.
They’re both in their infancy as full-time ballplayers, with only four professional seasons between them. But you wouldn’t know it from the numbers they’ve been putting up.
Bichette is coming off a gangbusters season in which he flirted with a .400 batting average and finished at .362/.423/.565 with 162 hits in 110 games. He looked like a guy who was hitting balls onto the concourse at Coors’ Field when he was only 15.
All Guerrero did in 2017 was walk 14 more times than he struck out, putting up a .323/.425/.485 line across low- and high-A. He looked like a guy who, when he was just seven, woke up every morning at 6:00 a.m. to take 500 swings in the batting cage.
They’re special players, these two, which is why you’ll likely see them ranked among the game’s top-10 prospects by a variety of outlets this spring. They’ll likely start 2018 at high-A Dunedin, but if they continue to rake like they have been and develop defensively, call-ups to double-A New Hampshire won’t be far behind. And that’s when the speculation about their big-league arrival will get dialled up to 11.
Realistically, neither of them should reach the majors in 2018. The Blue Jays are currently well spoken for at third base and shortstop, and the two teenagers could no doubt benefit from another full season of minor-league development.
Bichette admitted that last year, his first of full-season ball, took a toll on him, and that by August he was struggling to keep his energy up. And Guerrero’s barely old enough to drink in Alberta, and is still rough-around-the-edges defensively, although he’s come a long way.
Still, fans can dream. Bichette and Guerrero can dream, too. And the Blue Jays front office can dream just a little bit themselves as they watch their two top prospects make themselves at home in Toronto’s clubhouse this week, with an eye towards the future.
“We believe in them a lot,” Kim says. “You could see it in Lansing, you could see it in Dunedin, and you can see it here. They come from different backgrounds but have come together to become good teammates who definitely push each other. It’s very exciting to watch them grow.”