The greatest player in the history of baseball will make his major-league debut on Friday.
Ok, ok, that’s not quite right. The greatest player in the history of organized sports will make his major-league debut on Friday.
That is the most appropriate reaction to the news that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will finally crash the Show Friday night at Rogers Centre. Check your tempered opinions at the door, and let your imagination run wild.
There’s something about top-prospect debuts in baseball that makes them better than in any other sport. The best young talents ply their trade in the minors for years, with grainy highlights and breathless scouting reports driving our escalating thirst to see these guys play. By the time they finally reach the big leagues, the hype has reached deafening levels.
Now consider the team. The Blue Jays went 22 years between the second of their back-to-back World Series titles and their next playoff berth. When October finally returned, it set off a flurry of Jays madness in Toronto, fueling two straight seasons of league-leading attendance, with sellout crowds at the dome and jammed patios all over the city brimming with blue-clad crazies. The Bautista bat flip alone became not only one of the greatest sports moments in the city’s history, but one of the most memorable post-season home runs and one of the most indelible celebrations in the sport’s history.
Yet when the Jays surged back into the consciousness of even casual Toronto sports fans, they did so without the help of star homegrown hitting prospects. Quick, name the last position player to come up through Toronto’s system and become an impact player in the big leagues. Aaron Hill? Alex Rios? Vernon Wells? It’s been a long time.
Guerrero’s skills live up to the hype. And considering that the best position players in franchise history either came from different organizations (Roberto Alomar, Jose Bautista) or spent much of their careers excelling in other uniforms (Carlos Delgado, John Olerud, Fred McGriff), we can set the bar this high: If the Blue Jays can find a way to sign Guerrero to the kind of extension that Ronald Acuna Jr. or Eloy Jimenez recently got, he will go down as the greatest Blue Jays position player of all time.
Guerrero isn’t just the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball. His bat has driven scouts and evaluators into fits of ecstasy, with both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline rating it a perfect 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. For context, neither Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, two of the most hyped young prospects of all time, earned hitting grades that high.
While Guerrero shares a name, a number, and a swing plane with his Hall of Fame father, they’re different kinds of hitters, and different kinds of players. Vlad Sr. never met a pitch he didn’t like, even swinging at — and connecting on! — pitches in the dirt. His reckless approach to the game made him swing at everything, treat every baserunner like a mortal enemy he had to erase, and run the bases like his pants were on fire. Those who played against him could barely believe he was real.
Vlad Jr. brings his own brand of mystique. It’s the kind that makes much older teammates of a teenager (now-20-year-old) ask for hitting advice. It’s the kind that makes comparisons to hitting deities like Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, or even Canada’s own Joey Votto look legit. In 287 minor-league games, Guerrero Jr. hit .331, slugged .529, and flashed a sky-high .414 on-base percentage.
Despite playing most of his minor-league career as a teenager, he somehow walked more than he struck out. No matter how great a hitter is, controlling the strike zone to that level, while showing off light-tower power, is the kind of thing you see once in a generation… maybe. It’s on the level of Joe DiMaggio.
The projection systems aren’t holding back their own numerical enthusiasm either. Steamer projects Guerrero to hit .306/.370/.516 this season as a 20-year-old rookie, a line that the system believes would be 40 per cent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis.
For comparison, only 10 batting title-qualified hitters fared that well in all of baseball last year, with stars like Anthony Rendon and Manny Machado at that level. Given their combination of youth, skill and pedigree, you could argue that the most highly-touted prospects to make their major-league debuts over the past half-century were Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Harper. Of those three, only Rodriguez topped that 40 per cent-or-more-above-league average mark in his first season as an everyday player.
And here’s the thing about baseball players who are extraordinarily good at an extraordinarily young age: They tend to become superstars, perennial MVP candidates who dominate the league for years and years.
Despite plenty of hard work of his own and by Blue Jays minor-league coaches and instructors, Guerrero probably isn’t going to win any Gold Glove awards. Much like Cabrera, Vlad Jr. might start his career at third base, only to shift to first base before long. But if his body cooperates, Guerrero could follow Cabrera’s path to baseball immortality solely on the strength of his bat.
As preposterously skilled as Guerrero is, there’s something more afoot here. For Jays fans, it’s finding that elusive homegrown hitting star. For prospect hounds, it’s watching to see if that elusive 80 hitting grade will prove justified. For baseball fans, it’s watching a slightly pudgy, huge-smiled megatalent continue on the path he started when videos of him hitting bombs first surfaced at age 15.
— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) April 25, 2019
There’s even something extra in it for an outlier like me, a lapsed Montreal Expos fan left without a team to root for. You stare at three-year-old, chipmunk-cheeked Vladito standing on the Olympic Stadium turf next to his dad and doffing his ‘lil Expos batting helmet, then flash forward to the now-infamous walkoff bomb he hit at the Big O to close out spring training last year…
…and you can’t help but smile.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is baseball’s newest must-see player, no matter what your rooting persuasions might be. Just imagine how sweet it would be if all the hype proves to be justified.