DUNEDIN, Fla. — During his final plate appearance of a game at Dunedin Stadium on Friday, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took one of his aggressive, forceful swings and felt a sharp pain in his left side. Soon after, the Toronto Blue Jays‘ top prospect was informed he had suffered a Grade 1 strain of his left oblique. It could’ve been worse. But less than a month into his first big-league camp, it’s the last thing Guerrero wants.
"For any young player, it’s a frightening feeling," said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. "Fortunately, it’s just a grade 1 and something we’ll be able to manage."
Guerrero will now spend at least the next week off the field, as he gives the injury time to heal. Within 1-2 weeks, he could resume baseball activities. And the Blue Jays are hopeful that three weeks from now, he’ll be able to return to games. Of course, all of that is dependent on how Guerrero responds to treatment, how quickly he recovers, and how he feels when he starts swinging a bat again.
"Every player’s different, every situation’s different," Atkins said. "He has a very aggressive swing, which is part of the reason we’ll be very careful and ensure that he’s ready for cage work. There will be less rotational work for the next week.
"There’s not a heightened worry. It’s really [us being] as proactive as we can possibly be to ensure we’re managing that moving forward."
Guerrero was unavailable for comment Sunday, and Monday is an off-day for the Blue Jays. But he’s expected to address the injury Tuesday before Toronto hosts the Tampa Bay Rays in Dunedin.
The injury will almost certainly hold Guerrero out of the remainder of Toronto’s Grapefruit League schedule, plus the club’s two-game series in Montreal later this month on the eve of the regular season.
A year ago, Guerrero electrified a crowd of more than 25,000 at Olympic Stadium with a ninth-inning walk-off homer. It was arguably the highlight of the 2018 Blue Jays season. Now, he won’t have an opportunity to follow it up this month.
"You know Vladdy, he’s so upbeat and positive," Atkins said after speaking to Guerrero following the injury. "The most discouraging thing for him is he’s not playing in baseball games. He loves to compete and loves to play. And he’ll see this as an opportunity to get better."
Atkins said the Blue Jays have yet to decide what level Guerrero will play at when he returns to games. Extended spring training — or minor-league camp, if he returns in time — would be one option, if the Blue Jays want to give Guerrero some runway to work out the kinks before playing in a meaningful game. Or he could be sent to one of the Blue Jays minor-league affiliates on a rehab assignment.
What’s now certain is that Guerrero will not be with the Blue Jays on opening day. Of course, it was always extremely unlikely he’d break camp with the team, considering the additional year of contractual control the Blue Jays would gain over baseball’s top prospect by keeping him in the minors for the first 15 days of the season, thus preventing him from spending the 172 days in the majors required to accrue a year of service time.
But now the public rationale can change. Instead of saying Guerrero must begin the 2019 season in the minors to continue developing, the Blue Jays can cite his injury and spring training disruption as the reason why he needs time to get up to speed before making his major-league debut.
If there is any positive the Blue Jays can extract from this, it’s that the scrutiny of their manipulation of Guerrero’s service time will now ease. No team wants a player — particularly one of Guerrero’s uncommon talent — to be hurt. But a grade 1 muscle strain is a relatively minor injury to experience. And it’s not hard to see the ancillary benefit the Blue Jays gain, both in ensuring Guerrero has seven years between now and free agency rather than six, and alleviating some of the negative press the team has been receiving.
Guerrero is unquestionably capable of being competitive in the major-leagues, after torching every level of the minors he’s encountered. In 95 games across four levels last year, Guerrero hit .381/.437/.636 with more extra-base hits (50) than strikeouts (38). He then went to the Arizona Fall League, where he posted an .851 OPS over 19 games.
There’s little to gain from reading into Guerrero’s Grapefruit League stats — he was 4-for-19 over six games, with three walks and a pair of doubles — during his first major-league camp. He barely had an opportunity to get his feet wet. What was notable was the excitement and anticipation that each of his plate appearances generated.
Florida stadiums were noticeably quieter whenever Guerrero came to the plate, as fans stopped what they were doing and raised cameras in hopes of capturing the 19-year-old — he turns 20 on Saturday — doing something special.
Fans won’t get to do that again until April, at least. Hopefully, sometime not long after that, they’ll be able to do it at major-league ballparks.