DUNEDIN, Fla. – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., sauntered through the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse Monday when he crossed paths with Justin Smoak, who eyed the young slugger’s bright yellow dreads and broke into a wide grin.
“Oh yeah,” the first baseman bellowed. “I wish I had hair like that.”
Guerrero smiled, just as he did sitting at his locker with Kendrys Morales and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., to his right and Freddy Galvis to his left, just as he did taking groundballs during the club’s first full-squad workout, just as he did throughout another rocket-show batting practice.
The seeming ease with which he carries himself is earning notice all around at Blue Jays camp, with Galvis saying “the mentality he has, that’s what makes him such a good player so early,” a conclusion drawn despite meeting Guerrero only a day ago.
The soon-to-be 20-year-old’s comfort in the spotlight matters given that the franchise’s rebuild sits to a significant degree on his ample shoulders, and that he’s going to be a focal point for teammates, the front office, fans and opponents all year whether he wants to be or not.
“I’m not the kind of person that craves attention or that wants it, particularly that I’m a guy that is focused on coming here working hard, doing the best I can then just going home and keeping a low profile,” he said in comments interpreted by Tanya Bialostozky, one of the team’s mental performance coaches. “I know I have to stay focused on working hard and getting better every day.”
A deft touch in pushing the organization’s talking points won’t hurt his case either, even as his eventual demotion looms for at least 15 days so the Blue Jays can take another year of control on him. New manager Charlie Montoyo continues to use the word “impressive” when describing the maturity with which Guerrero carries himself and noted during media sessions he’s been giving “the right answers.”
The day after Marcus Stroman’s still remarkable 20-minute conversation with media, it helped restore some equilibrium to camp. Aaron Sanchez threw another side session that drew more rave reviews and Galvis gracefully gobbled up grounders at shortstop, an under-the-radar upgrade with the potential to dynamically alter the club’s defence.
Still, so much comes back to Guerrero, who arrives as the most hyped prospect the Blue Jays have ever had, at a time when fans need some good to cling to, and in today’s increasingly insatiable 24-hour news cycle world.
Even though each year the media circus seems to become more berserk, past experiences still matter and Dave Hudgens had a first-hand experience with Carlos Correa’s graduation to the Houston Astros in 2015. The star shortstop was selected first overall in the 2012 draft – the year after the Astros went 56-106, and was a key piece of the future whose arrival was desperately awaited.
“We just made Carlos feel like one of the guys,” said Hudgens, then Houston’s hitting coach and now the Blue Jays bench coach. “The veterans took care of him, (Jose) Altuve was there, they’re really close. We started out talking about him hitting sixth, not too much pressure on him, our plan was to give him a couple of weeks, let him get his feet wet. After four days, it was like, this guy should be hitting higher (he moved to second before settling in at third). It all depends on the player and his mentality, if he can handle it. Carlos was such that he could and he was really driven, similar to how it looks with Vladdy, just watching him interact and with what everybody says.”
Guerrero noted how he’ll look to veterans around the team for guidance and said Morales “is almost like my dad,” given that he was his Hall of Fame dad’s teammate for four years with the Los Angeles Angels. Junior would have been 7-10 at the time, and some bonds run deeper than others.
“I feel very proud to be able to play next to him,” said Guerrero. “I think Kendrys feels proud to have me by his side, so I really feel there’s a strong relationship there, and he’s like a dad for me in the clubhouse.”
Such a father figure should come in handy as every move Guerrero makes will be heavily scrutinized, most intensely by a front office so leveraged to his success. To this point, he’s met and exceeded every organizational bench mark set in place for him and his walkoff home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in Montreal to close out last spring was just a sneak preview of what he brings to the table.
How is he a better player than he was a year ago when launched that laser to left centre off Jack Flaherty?
“Wait for the next game and see,” he replied with a grin. “I can’t tell you right now, if you’re willing to wait a couple days, I’ll be able to let you know about that. Right now, I don’t know how to answer that question.”
He needn’t worry. Plenty of people will be watching to find out.
INAGURAL ADDRESS: Charlie Montoyo addressed the full squad before Monday’s workouts, a speech he said he kept brief, just like he promised: “I’ll give you more or less what I said. I said last year, when I was watching you guys from the other side, as you guys remember, the Rays played us seven times in the last 10 games of the season. It was around the fifth or sixth game that before the game I was talking to Kevin Cash and said, that Toronto team is going to be pretty good, they’re going to be good for a long time. It reminds me of Boston (four) years ago when Mookie Betts and them first came up and look at who they are now. And Kevin Cash goes, Holmes, he called me Holmes, that’s going to be the best job in baseball, they’re going to be good.” Of course, Montoyo ended up landing that job about a month later. “Then we talked about our focus for this year, I said we’re going to be bold, we’re going to compete every day, we’re not going to be afraid to be different, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win a game, whether that’s an opener or a four-man outfield, whatever it takes. … We’re going to build a championship team and that starts today. I think that’s how I ended it.”
STRO SHOW: Montoyo was in West Palm Beach on Sunday when Marcus Stroman made his comments. Asked for his reaction, the skipper continued to try and de-escalate tensions: “He’s doing great, he had a great bullpen, everything is good in there so there’s nothing for me to talk about. We talked today. He did (say) something about Carlos Gomez – I like Carlos Gomez. Carlos Gomez sent me that tweet like, hey, hey, I’m here. It’s all good. Stroman wants to win. It’s all good.”
IRONMAN FREDDY: Over the past four seasons, Freddy Galvis has been among the most durable players in baseball, appearing in 633 of a possible 648 games. His secret? “Just try to take care of my body,” he said. “The last few years I’ve been smart and tried to listen to my body, I know when I have to take a break in the weight room or something like that. I try to rest a lot and eat good and do my workouts, those things help me be on the field every single day.” Though his clear preference is to play shortstop, the current plan for him, he added that he’s comfortable at other spots, too. “If you give me a glove I can play wherever,” he said. “But not catcher. Not catcher.”