Guerrero Jr.’s elite instincts on full display at Blue Jays spring training

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. spoke after a Blue Jays spring training game about enjoying the game of baseball as opposed to seeing it as a job, and how he will qualify his spring as a success.

SARASOTA, Fla. – Even amid the most mundane of tasks Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is the centre of attention, which is why as he scrummed with media at Ed Smith Stadium, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., dished out barbs that cracked up his friend, and Rowdy Tellez eavesdropped around the corner.

What is he enjoying most about his first big-league camp, he was asked.

"Baseball," Tellez whispered, just loud enough for the young slugger to pick up and guffaw at.

"I think you guys all heard it back there, that’s what I enjoy the most, just playing baseball," Guerrero replied, his comments interpreted by Tanya Bialostozky, one of the club’s mental performance coaches. "I don’t see it as a job. I do it because I like it, I enjoy it, I see it as something I love doing every day."

That much is evident each time the soon-to-be 20-year-old takes the field, and never more so than in the third inning of Sunday’s 9-8 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

First, he collected his first hit of the spring, a little nubber that barely left the dirt cutout around home plate but still travelled just far enough for Lourdes Gurriel Jr., to cross the plate. Then, after a Dalton Pompey single loaded the bases, Guerrero turned hard for home from second on Dwight Smith Jr.’s base hit, belly-flopping into the plate and immediately rolling back up, blonde-tipped dreads flying, smiling the whole way.

Guerrero 1, Ground 0.

"They all laughed about it," he said of the reaction in the Blue Jays dugout. "But my hand fell and I didn’t want to get injured so I was protecting it. I decided to just let my body go in order to protect my arm."

Such presence of mind in a spur-of-the-moment kind of play is part of why Guerrero is considered baseball’s top prospect.

Beyond the uncanny sense of the strike zone, off-the-charts hand-eye coordination and 70-grade power, there is an instinct for the game that separates him from players older than him, let alone others his age.

"That’s pretty good that he does that," said manager Charlie Montoyo.

The Blue Jays will later this spring cite some need for further refinement in his game when they option him to triple-A Buffalo to artificially push back his free agency, but he showed nice polish all around in his spring debut, which included three at-bats and four defensive innings.

There were a couple good takes before he rolled over on a 2-1 pitch for a groundout to short in the first, and he flew out in the fifth, but there was the good base running in the third plus a nifty defensive play bottom one, when playing in, he snared speedy Jonathan Villar’s smash.

"For a big man he runs pretty good, and for a big man he moves pretty good at first base," said Montoyo. "So far, he looks pretty good to me."

The plan for the time being is for players, in general, to suit up every other day, meaning the next instalment of the Guerrero Show will be Tuesday in Dunedin against the Boston Red Sox.

In this MLB and Toronto Blue Jays podcast, Dan Shulman takes a look at the human side of baseball. Because everyone in the game has a story.

ADRENALINE RUSH: A year ago at his first big-league spring camp Sean Reid-Foley was given late-inning mop-up duty against hitters with race car numbers on their jerseys, so starting the Blue Jays’ second game of the spring was a mark of progress for him.

"It’s funny how a year changes a lot," said Reid-Foley. "I felt like the adrenaline was definitely pumping but it was very controlled. I was expecting the opposite, like a debut type thing where you really can’t find it. I felt great out there and got the first one out of the way. Just go compete from here on out."

As things stand now, the 23-year-old right-hander is on the outside of the rotation picture looking in, and barring the unforeseen, will open the season in the triple-A Buffalo rotation the way Ryan Borucki did a year ago. Borucki will win the fifth starter’s job unless calamity strikes, with Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone essentially jockeying to be No. 6 on the depth chart.

"We’re all in each other’s corner," said Reid-Foley. "If you were to go walk around with us for a day, an hour, whatever you want, we’re always helping each other. It’s never like, ‘Oh, I’m going against you. I’m not going to talk to you.’ We’re all boys, we played the last two years together. Last year it was pretty cool to see all of us get up there and to experience that all together was a lot of fun."

Reid-Foley’s fastball command was a touch spotty in a first inning that culminated in Rio Ruiz’s three-run homer on a misplaced heater – "I don’t think I’ll ever be a pin-point command guy," he said – but settled in a clean second, drawing praise from Montoyo for the adjustment.

MCKINNEY VS POMPEY: The Blue Jays intend to give Dalton Pompey ample opportunity to impress this spring given that he’s out of options, and he made the most of it Sunday with a couple of hits, including a home run.

Still, the favourite at the moment is Billy McKinney, who impressed during a 36-game audition at the end of 2018 following his acquisition from the Yankees in the J.A. Happ trade, and was listed as a possible leadoff hitter by Montoyo.

"(Pompey) has got all those tools and I’m pulling for the kid," said the manager. "And McKinney is another good player that I saw last year and it’s going to be a good competition between these kids."

McKinney was also in the lineup Sunday, collecting a single and a double while also making a nice running grab on a Carlos Perez liner just inside the foul line in right to end the second. His double, off lefty Tanner Scott, came leading off the third.

"I was pretty tired there," he said with a smile. "It’s a hot one, I was breathing a little heavy in that at-bat, but I was just trying to throw that out as much as possible and get on to the at-bat."

Last year, McKinney batted leadoff 25 times with the Blue Jays while hitting .252/.320/.470 with six homers. He enjoys the role, and his off-season focus was in staying more consistent with his approach at the plate.

"I’m trying not to get too big," he said of his swing. "Sometimes I’d try to muscle up too much and if that happens it slows me down. I’m trying to be more free and easy, and trying not to get too intense sometimes."

STATUS CHECK: The Blue Jays clarified Randal Grichuk’s status Sunday, saying the right-fielder isn’t suffering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot right now, but rather is ramping up slowly because he’s experienced it in the past.

"He’s not hurt, I’m just being careful with him because he played like that last year but he’s not hurt," said manager Charlie Montoyo. "He’s going to be big for us, for him to be healthy, so we’re being patient with him. But he’s not hurt. We’re just taking (our) time, DH him here, get him off his feet. Just in case."

UP NEXT: Marcus Stroman makes his spring debut Monday when the Blue Jays visit the New York Yankees in Tampa. Matt Shoemaker gets the ball Tuesday against visiting Boston.

SHORT HOPS: Starting behind the plate for the Orioles was former Blue Jays farmhand Carlos Perez, who was one of the seven players the Blue Jays sent to Houston on July 20, 2012 to acquire J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon and David Carpenter. Perez doubled in a pair off Trent Thornton in the fourth, getting thrown trying to stretch at third base. … Also in camp with the Orioles are former Blue Jays Bo Schultz and farmhand Gregory Infante. … New Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was one of the finalists for the Blue Jays’ opening. … Catcher Patrick Cantwell, part of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats club that won the double-A Eastern League championship last year, hit a solo shot in the eighth inning.

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