TORONTO – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. isn’t in the big-leagues for his defence. Competent, passable play in the field is really all he needs to complement his bat, the one that made him baseball’s top prospect before his promotion last season, the primary element the Toronto Blue Jays need the 21-year-old to leverage in his career.
Given that, at some point the calculus in having Guerrero continue to put in hours upon hours of work to become a better defender at third base, arguably in pursuit of limited upside and perhaps at the expense of his offence, was going to require some recalibration.
That the Blue Jays shifted him across the diamond to first base two weeks before this bizarre, pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 season, is both intriguing and understandable.
In the short-term, the move makes them stronger defensively, with Travis Shaw moving to third for the bulk of reps. In the coming sprint, every little bit of margin can make a difference.
In the medium-term, top prospect Jordan Groshans and No. 5 pick Austin Martin, predominantly a third baseman at Vanderbilt, are on the horizon and are going to need to play.
And in the long-term, the most important thing is helping Guerrero maximize his potential at the plate.
“It’s all about a player having the best chance to compete,” manager Charlie Montoyo said Friday when asked why the change was made now. “It’s going to be a short season, so for me the best chance for Vlad is to play first base, DH, and also play third. Me knowing that Travis Shaw can play third because I’ve seen him, and he’s a good third baseman, also helps that. But this is more about Vladdy and giving him a chance to succeed in a short season.”
Guerrero spent the off-season working to better his conditioning after losing steam at the end of his rookie year, and on improving both his flexibility and agility. That was expected to help him in the field, and at the plate, too.
Still, even then, the discussions about changing positions started between Guerrero, Montoyo and general manager Ross Atkins during spring training, when the slugger also began taking grounders at first with infield coach Luis Rivera.
“Whatever the team needs from me, I’m going to be ready,” he said in comments interpreted by Hector Lebron. “So I’m OK with that.”
As for how the switch might benefit him physically this year, Guerrero said: “I’m not thinking about that right now. I just want to do anything to help my team. I’ve been talking to my teammates, the first basemen, to try and get some advice, just to be ready when the time comes.”
Among that advice is making sure he’s careful about how he places his foot on the bag while awaiting throws, and he’s working on his angles when fielding grounders with Rivera. He also plans to reach out to Los Angeles Angels star Albert Pujols for a few tips.
“I’m feeling really comfortable,” he said.
The roster fallout beyond the obvious includes questions about what’s ahead for Rowdy Tellez, who has three intrasquad home runs in two games. With Guerrero due to take up most of the reps at first base and DH duties expected to be spread around the position players, there doesn’t seem to be a direct pathway to regular at-bats for him.
How everyone performs will ultimately sort that out – dudes who rake find their way into the lineup – but it’s clear the Blue Jays believe regular work at first, without the taxing demands of third, are key to getting the most out of Guerrero’s bat.
Guerrero said he spent the shutdown following the same routine he did during the off-season, confident in the work he managed to put in.
“I feel very good about it. I did what I could,” he said. “I’m ready, I’m ready for the season to start and to help my team win. I’m good. My body feels great.”
Clearly the Blue Jays feel a move to first base will help keep it that way.