SARASOTA, Fla. — Naturally, expectations were tempered for the Toronto Blue Jays front office and coaching staff Thursday, as the club’s two top prospects, 18-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (he turns 19 next week) and 20-year-old Bo Bichette, made their major-league spring training debuts. It was their first time playing at this level. They’ve only been professionals for a couple years. If either of them even came away with a hit, it would’ve been called a successful day.
“It’s spring training, it’s their first game,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was saying Thursday morning right before the young duo took batting practice. “They’re not going to make the team. Unless something really crazy happens.”
So, does what happened Thursday — Guerrero went 4-for-5, Bichette 2-for-3 — qualify as really crazy? No. No, it does not. But it certainly qualifies as extremely promising, and a very pleasant surprise for an organization that was just looking to get the pair some spring training experience. It also qualifies as a tantalizing look at the future, and the left side of a not-so-far-off Blue Jays infield the club hopes will be its cornerstone for seasons to come.
“We know they’re good and the baseball world knows they’re good — and they go out there and produce on their first day. They’ve got to feel really good about it,” Gibbons said after the game. “For our fans and our organization, it’s exciting. They finally get to see them play. It just seems like a lot of life on the field.”
Guerrero, the Dominican phenom and son of a Hall of Famer, is considered to have one of the most advanced bats in the minor leagues, and he showed why Thursday.
He hit a soft flare the opposite way for a single in his first plate appearance. And after he flew out to centre in his second, he shot another single back up the middle in his third. In his fourth, another single, as Guerrero worked a 2-2 count before skipping another grounder back up the middle.
His fifth time up, with one out in the top of the ninth inning, Guerrero got into a 1-2 count before lining a pitch the other way for his fourth hit of the day. That was perhaps the most impressive piece of hitting Guerrero displayed, staying with a tough pitch in a pitcher’s count and using the opposite field.
“Those hits up the middle and the other way, that’s a great sign because you know he’s strong enough to pull home runs. I was very impressed,” Gibbons said. “To be honest, he looks just like his dad. A lot of similar mannerisms and things like that and, today, very similar results.”
Of course, there’s one key difference between Jr. and Sr. — the young third baseman has some discipline to his plate approach. While Guerrero Sr. was famously swing happy, taking a cut at nearly 60 per cent of the pitches he saw in his career, Guerrero Jr. walked 14 more times than he struck out in 2017, something 18-year-olds aren’t really supposed to do.
When he walked to the plate for the first time Thursday — pausing to carve “Dios” in the dirt, as he’s done every plate appearance since he was a child — Guerrero says he was feeling the moment.
“I was a little bit nervous so when I stepped out onto the field today. I was just concentrating on trying to go out there and do my best,” he said through Blue Jays interpreter Josue Peley. “I don’t think there’s one [hit] over the other that I’m going to remember. Every single hit is good. I’m going to remember all of them, the four that I got.”
Bichette, meanwhile, is one of the most confident minor-leaguers you’ll meet, and for good reason. He hit .362/.423/.565 over 499 plate appearances in mid- and high-A last season, collecting 162 hits in 110 games. He had more than twice as many games with multiple hits (51) than games without a hit at all (19).
He’s always had an aggressive approach, and he showed that in his first plate appearance, going after the first pitch he saw and grounding it softly back to the mound. But he was more selective his next time up, taking a couple pitches before lining a grounder into left field to score a runner from third.
His third time at the plate, Bichette was back in attack-mode, lining another single into left, this time plating a runner from second.
“It was just about having a fun day. I mean, this is my first game of spring training. So, just about learning. Also, learning how to control my emotions in an exciting time,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on the field against other people. It was a great experience to be able to get on the field and play a ballgame — a lot of fun.”
While the third baseman Guerrero served as his team’s designated hitter, Bichette got to display some of the work he’s been putting in on the defensive side of the ball, playing six innings of shortstop. Many have speculated about whether Bichette can stick at that position or not, with some scouts and analysts pondering whether he’s better suited to play second base.
But Bichette’s been doing everything he can to combat that narrative, and showed off both his range and a strong throwing arm while manning short Thursday.
“He did everything right,” Gibbons said. “He stole a base, was aggressive on the bases, almost flagged down a fly ball out there in left. He’s got a lot of talent.”
So, it was a pretty good day for these two. A first in many ways. But more of the same in others. They both have fathers who played long, successful MLB careers, and both grew up in big-league clubhouses, taking batting practice with pros when they were mere pubescents. (Bichette’s parents, Dante and Mariana, were in attendance Thursday; Guerrero’s father was back in the Dominican, awaiting a nightly call from his son.)
— Vladimir Guerrero (@VladGuerrero27) March 8, 2018
That’s part of the reason why the Blue Jays believe these two are so exceptional. You can teach fundamentals. You can study plate approach. You can learn from in-game experience. But you can’t replicate the upbringing these two had.
“I think there’s something to that — good bloodlines,” Gibbons said. “You know, it’s hard to make it in this game. Even if you’re a good player in this game, there’s no guarantee your son’s going to make it either, you know? So, it’s just a great story.”