How Vladdy’s double-A mentor charted a path to MLB

With an unrefined 21-year-old Vladimir Guerrero in double-A Harrisburg back in 1996, the Montreal Expos decided to call him up directly to the majors. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Vladimir Guerrero was already a one-name athlete when he crossed paths with Charlie Montoyo in 1996. He was already ‘Vladdy,’ hitter of prodigious home runs and doubles on pitches that bounced off the dirt in front of the plate.

Montoyo, a nifty infielder from Puerto Rico then 30 years old with all of 27 days in the Majors who had already been earmarked by some as a manager, was signed by the Montreal Expos and sent to double-A Harrisburg before the 1996 season with specific instructions: be a teammate, a de facto player-coach, and mentor for Guerrero, then a raw 21-year-old in his second full season in North America, as unrefined off the field as he was on it.

As reporters — including this one — started to beat a path to Harrisburg to see what all the fuss was about, it was Montoyo who would translate. So it was some kind of reunion on Friday when Montoyo, now the third base coach of the Tampa Bay Rays, gave Guerrero a warm hug as 16-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took batting practice with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“It’s the first time we’ve spoken since Harrisburg,” Montoyo said Sunday, before the Rays wrapped up their three-game series with the Blue Jays. “He sounded the same, after being a big leaguer so long and being so good. He was Vladdy. It still makes me happy when I see people like that.”

Montoyo was on the Expos major league roster for all of 27 days in 1993 before playing the next two seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Fully, 24 of the 40 players to wear a Senators uniform in 1996 went on to the majors, but Montoyo chose another route.

“That season in Harrisburg kind of turned me into a coach,” he said. “I realized ‘OK, this is perfect for me. I like this. I can help kids make it to the majors.’”

You could say it’s worked out for all concerned. Before Montoyo was promoted to the Rays major league staff this season, he spent 18 years managing in the Rays minor league system — including eight in a row at Triple-A Durham — going back to the organization’s inaugural 1996 campaign, when former Expos director of player personnel Bill Geivett, then a special assistant with the Rays, urged the organization to hire him.

Going into this season, 42 per cent of players and pitchers to ever wear a Rays uniform played at least one game with Montoyo as their manager. Montoyo was named to the Rays coaching staff when Tom Foley moved from third base to bench coach for rookie manager Kevin Cash.

Guerrero, Jr., who signed a $3.9-million free-agent contract with the Blue Jays, won’t be able to do one thing his father did. While Vladimir Sr.’s famous reticence to speak English to the press became a trademark, the Blue Jays want the younger Guerrero to become comfortable in a second language, something with which Montoyo concurs.

“Vladdy is a fun guy … great sense of humour,” said Montoyo. “I wouldn’t say he got lazy about speaking English … I just think people made it easy for him to be comfortable without it.”

Sanchez back in the bullpen

And so it has come to this. After all the denials and counter-arguments, Aaron Sanchez is back in the bullpen — ending, for now, one of the favourite parlour games of Blue Jays fans and media.

Sanchez, who is finishing off rehabilitating from a lat muscle injury, will make one more appearance out of the bullpen for triple-A Buffalo on Tuesday and then join the Blue Jays later in the week, where he, Roberto Osuna and Bo Schultz will be asked to bring heat out of the back end of the bullpen. There are long-term questions surrounding Sanchez’s ultimate role — some in the organization believe his delivery mitigates against him starting without risking injury — but for now, it appears as if the organization has decided it needs to fill internally one of two obvious flaws.

“That would be a fair assessment,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos responded via text when asked if he was now likely to turn his focus on adding a starting pitcher at the trade deadline as opposed to a reliever.

It makes sense. The pool is deeper and there are more intriguing options with multiple years of control. Also, considering the way organizations such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals have developed closers from within, it might be time the Blue Jays take a look at their minor league starting depth and tell Sanchez he’s a full-time closer from this point on — especially given their irrational fear of signing closers to multi-year contracts.

Quibbles and bits
  • Rays manager Cash is the perfect fit for a job that has seen four-fifths of his starting rotation spend extended periods on the disabled list. As a former backup catcher with a lengthy minor league resume, he’s had ample opportunity to catch rehabilitating pitchers either in spring training or in-season. So it was interesting getting some insight on Sunday from one of the front-runners for American League manager of the year when he was asked what he expected from Matt Moore on Monday in his fourth start since under-going Tommy John surgery in April, 2014.

    Moore has had the lead in all of his starts and has failed to hang on to it, averaging 82 pitches per start. “Matt is committed to his fastball, and fastball command is key when a guy is coming back,” said Cash. “The velocity will come. It will come back quicker with command.”

    The DL is the Rays trade deadline. Once Drew Smyly comes back — and he’s pitching a simulated game this week — they’ll have the best starting rotation in the American League East.

  • You follow a sport as closely as you can and still catch yourself being shocked every now and then — such as being reminded that Pedro Martinez’s induction into the hall of fame in Cooperstown next week makes him only the second native of the Dominican Republic in the hall, joining Juan Marichal — who was inducted 32 years ago.

    Martinez is going in as a member of the Boston Red Sox, but expect a heavy turnout of Expos fans — and don’t be surprised if in his acceptance speech Martinez offers some words of support for the cause of bringing Major League Baseball back to Montreal.

  • The end game

    It’s a big leap from the Pan Am Games to the Summer Olympics, but the more you read about the hash of things being made by the Boston 2024 bid committee — the USOC’s favourite — the more you wonder whether some of the idle rich in this city won’t try to gin things up and make a last-second bid or put their faith in 2024 going to a European city, leaving the door open for North America in 2028.

    I’d like to see a joint bid between Montreal and Toronto, but know this: in 2028 there could very well be more North American competition.

    Jeff Blair is host of The Jeff Blair Show and Baseball Central from 9 a.m.-12 ET and 12-1 p.m. on Sportsnet 590 the FAN. He also appears frequently on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown.

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