SARASOTA, Fla. – The first time I interviewed Vladimir Guerrero Jr., it was really all about his famous, Hall of Fame-bound father and he played along for the most part until the topic switched to his approach to hitting.
He borrowed a great deal from his father, he said. But he also moved quickly to dissuade the notion he was a free-swinger, an organic hitter like Vladdy Sr., who for yucks would grab any bat out of the rack during a game, and check to see if its owner minded him using it. Guerrero Sr. didn’t need much – didn’t need batting gloves or jewelry. His first manager with the Montreal Expos, Felipe Alou, once said he didn’t even care or know who was on the mound. “He knows who’s hitting,” Alou said. “That’s enough.”
But through an interpreter on this particular day at the Bobby Mattick Training Complex, Guerrero Jr. wanted one thing made clear: “I won’t swing at everything,” he said.
So the hitting sins of the father – sins, such as they are; sins to which most major-leaguers would love to be able to admit – may not have been passed down to the son and there seems to be a growing body of evidence that his uncle, former MLBer Wilton, has played the key advisory role to him, but that doesn’t mean Guerrero Jr. could avoid his father’s legacy even if he wanted to.
On the day he took batting practice at Rogers Centre and signed with the Blue Jays, the man the Expos signed to play with Vladimir Sr., at their double-A Harrisburg affiliate and serve as a mentor, Charlie Montoyo, was in town as a coach with the Tampa Bay Rays. And Thursday – which shaped up as just another Grapefruit League day offering nothing more than glorified live batting practice for Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez – saw Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette make their major-league Grapefruit League debuts against the Baltimore Orioles.
Looking on? The man who was general manager of the Expos when Vladdy Sr. was signed out of the Dominican Republic – current Orioles GM Dan Duquette – and the man who was GM of the Expos when Guerrero Sr. made his MLB debut in the throes of a playoff race in 1996, Jim Beattie, who is currently a Blue Jays scout.
The longer you play this game and the better you play it, chances are you’ll run into, beat, play with, for, or against a lot of people. But, damn, the baseball gods sure showed their faces at Ed Smith Stadium, didn’t they?
“We had him in our minor-league camp and I kept reading these reports,” Duquette told my show Thursday about Guerrero Sr. “I hadn’t seen him play but then I saw one report from double-A saying he’s like Roberto Clemente.
“Clemente, everybody knows, is the most highly skilled, tooled-up right-fielder in the history of the game.”
Duquette made the trip to Harrisburg and saw Guerrero put the fat part of the bat on balls in the left-handed batters box.
“Never seen anybody like that,” he said. “Vladdy never saw a ball coming in to the plate he wasn’t able to hit. Unbelievable skills.
“If his son has those bat-to-ball skills and discipline, he should be a star in our game.”
Added Beattie: “It’s cool and depressing at the same time,” he said, chuckling. “I haven’t seen him before. When you’re a scout these are the ideal lineups for you. They’ll be jacked, excited to play in this environment.”
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons joked that he expected a memo from the commissioner’s office because he took a lineup to Sarasota that was shy of MLB content.
My guess is the Jays fans in attendance weren’t complaining. Anthony Alford was there and he will be the first of the wave to crash on the shore and he already seems temperamentally suited to paving the way for Guerrero Jr. and Bichette. Lourdes Gurriel started at second base: If all goes according to plan – and his work in the field suggests the plan is, um, evolving – he’ll the Jays’ version of Ben Zobrist. As for Sanchez? Either he or Marcus Stroman will be the ace of the staff when Guerrero Jr. and Bichette are ready for the show.
Sanchez was aware of the significance of Thursday’s lineup. He remembered his first trip to a Grapefruit League game as a highly touted pitching prospect, mostly because he faced no major-leaguers. Gibbons remembered his first Grapefruit League game with the New York Mets, Cliff Johnson was catching when Gibbons came to the plate.
“He wouldn’t shut up,” Gibbons said, laughing.
“I remember it was in 2014 and the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning so I was still facing minor-leaguers myself,” Sanchez said. “I remember my first ‘whoa’ factor in a big-league game was against Tampa Bay’s starting lineup. Three, four maybe five years ago, but it was like: ‘Man, whether you like it or not, you’re going to make that start.’ You just compete. Regardless of the name on the back or who you watched as a kid, it’s time to show them what you got.”
And so there it was: A taste. A glimpse. Bichette’s quirky swing looks a bit like a guy trying to hold on to two bags of groceries and open the front door at the same time, but as Gibbons said after watching him behind the cage: “His weight transfer is something else. I told him that.”
Guerrero Jr. is heftier than his father, who was all legs until he bulked up. But like his father, he can – and did – bring batting practice to a stop. There is going to be a debate in Toronto this season about when the Blue Jays should consider calling up Guerrero Jr. and in a perfect world it will be with the team playing well; it will replicate the way Cody Bellinger and Rafael Devers were able to come up last season and join the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox, respectively, and make good teams better.
That’s what happened with Vladdy Sr. when Beattie was GM. He joined a team vying for a wild-card spot.
“When you have a great player, they tell you when they’re ready,” said Beattie. “Nowadays, there might be some things going on with (service) time but we never thought of that with Vladdy.
“The other thing that was so fortunate for Vlad was Felipe Alou.”
Indeed, Alou has said one of his career milestones was being the manager to help Guerrero; of being the first native of the Dominican Republic to manage in the majors when Guerrero – unilingual, unadorned and in some ways naive – was breaking in.
And he put Guerrero in right away, sacrificing playing time for the likes of Henry Rodriguez.
“One of the things that made Felipe so great was he knew how to get the most out of young players early in their careers,” Beattie said. “Felipe could get a young player up and in the lineup and get something out of him in the first year or two.
“Felipe knew whose noses he could put out of joint.”
One spring day. A few at-bats, a little excitement. Can Vladdy Jr. force other people’s hands the way his father did? Don’t bet against that. Far from running from his father’s shadow, I have a sense he’s going to flourish in it. Or maybe that’s just the spring talking.