TORONTO — When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. jogged towards the Rogers Centre outfield for the first of what he hopes will be many, many times on Friday afternoon, he did so in a well-worn pair of white Under Armor cleats. Toronto Blue Jays veteran Jose Bautista took notice and said that wouldn’t do. Guerrero Jr. was in a major league ballpark, wearing a major league uniform, and working out with major leaguers. He needed a pair of major league shoes.
So Bautista ran back to the Blue Jays clubhouse and retrieved a fresh pair of red-white-and-blue New Balance cleats, digging the stuffing out of them and unwrapping the never-before-tied laces before handing them to Guerrero Jr. along with a good dose of advice.
“[Bautista] told me there’s a lot of people that are going to be coming onto me now that I’ve signed,” Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Ismael Cruz, the Blue Jays international scouting director. “He said I need to keep true to myself and that if I do I’m going to be here in a couple years.”
If you ask Guerrero Jr., a couple years is indeed the plan. The 16-year-old son of Vladimir Sr., the legendary former Montreal Expo and likely future hall-of-famer, signed with the Blue Jays earlier this month, putting pen to paper on a $3.9-million deal, the second-highest bonus given to an international free agent in franchise history.
He still has braces on his teeth and acne on his cheeks, he doesn’t speak much English, and he’s never played professional baseball, but he is confident that he’ll be playing in Toronto soon.
“In my mind, I’ll make it in two years,” Guerrero Jr. said when asked what his plan was for making it to the big leagues. That timeline would make Guerrero Jr. one of the youngest men ever to play in the majors, and the first 18-year-old since Alex Rodriguez did it for the Seattle Mariners in 1994.
Guerrero Jr. certainly doesn’t lack confidence, but he evidently doesn’t lack ability either. Asked if he was a similar player to his father, who hit 449 homers in the majors, he flashed a grin. “The same,” he said. “Or better.”
Vlad Sr. was there with his son at Rogers Centre on Friday, along with his brother, Wilton Guerrero, who played eight years in the majors. The former major leaguers kept their distance as Guerrero Jr. went through the motions with the Blue Jays, stretching, shagging flies in the outfield, fielding ground balls and taking batting practice.
The hitting session attracted quite a gathering as scores of curious onlookers crowded the batting cage to see what the highly-touted teenager could do with the bat. Guererro Jr. mostly hit line drives to all fields, but he also deposited a few balls into the outfield seats, demonstrating the powerful swing that made him one of the most coveted free agents in this year’s international market.
“Since I’ve been doing this, I haven’t seen a kid with that power,” Cruz said. “He has a better bat now than what his father had at that age, and it’s not a swing that’s going to go away. He’s had it for a long time and he’s always hit.”
This is the first time since Cruz has been with the Blue Jays that the club has brought an international prospect to Toronto during the season to give him a taste of big league life. The hope is that the visit removes a bit of the mystique of life in the majors and allows Guerrero Jr. to soak up some wisdom from current Blue Jays.
There was certainly plenty of that to go around during batting practice, when Guerrero Jr. hit with fellow Dominicans Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes, plus Josh Donaldson.
“It felt good. They were sharing their experiences with me,” Guerrero Jr. said. “I’m hoping to take that along with me.”
Guerrero Jr. says the Blue Jays were his favourite team growing up, and that he sees himself fitting in well with a clubhouse that has no shortage of Dominican talent.
He left school when he was 12 to train twice a day with his uncle, Wilton, and focus all of his energy on becoming a major league ballplayer. He’s slimmed down the heavy frame he carried in his youth and was ranked the No.1 international free agent in this year’s class by Baseball America, and No. 4 by MLB.com, mostly because of his prodigious ability at the plate.
He says he’s a more disciplined hitter than his father, who was notorious for swinging at pitches well out of the strike zone and turning them into hits. He also said hitting in front of a Rogers Centre crowd on Friday that included, fans, players and several members of the Blue Jays brass, including Cruz, GM Alex Anthopoulos, and assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, didn’t bother him at all.
“No nerves. Never. I didn’t feel any pressure,” Guerrero Jr. said, leaning back on the railing that lines the Blue Jays dugout. “I don’t feel nervous because I’ve seen my father play in the major leagues all the time. So it was fine.”
The next stop for Guerrero Jr. will be Dunedin, Fla., where he’ll remain for a week while the Blue Jays teach him how to condition his body properly and work out to improve his strength and endurance. Then he’ll return to the Dominican Republic where he’ll play in a series of unofficial games with other prospects.
The Blue Jays expect Guerrero Jr. to get anywhere from 50-75 at-bats in the Dominican, before he’ll head off to instructional league this fall. Next spring he’ll join the Blue Jays minor league system, likely in one of the three levels of A-ball, and begin his ascent to the majors.
Guerrero Jr. thinks that ascent will only take a couple seasons, which would be an incredibly fast climb through the system. In all likelihood, things won’t transpire that quickly, but the Blue Jays have had their eyes on Guerrero Jr. for years, and if anyone is going to accomplish the unlikely, it’s the son of Vladimir Sr.
“For us, Vladdy Jr.’s a difference maker,” Cruz said. “He has the potential to be a very, very special kid.”