By Shi Davidi in Manchester, N.H.
By Shi Davidi in Manchester, N.H.
While the baseball world anxiously anticipates his eventual call-up to the Toronto Blue Jays, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is wowing teammates and letting his bat do the talking.

Tales of the perpetual buzz in Toronto created by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s ongoing exploits this season come as no surprise to the awe-inspiring prospect’s teammates on the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

“Oh yeah, I know,” grins catcher Max Pentecost. “We talk about it a lot here, too.”

“The attention is definitely warranted — there’s a lot of hype around him, but it’s completely real,” says right-hander Jordan Romano. “He is the best hitter, not even considering he’s 19, I’ve ever played with, ever seen.”

“People always say, ‘Man, this is like what you did last year,’” adds shortstop Bo Bichette. “It’s not even close to what I did last year. He hits the ball hard it seems like every at-bat and when he doesn’t it still drops in for a double. He’s just been unbelievable. He stays with his approach and the way he’s hitting for power this year is different than last year. It’s been really fun to watch him improve.”

So yeah, even those along for the ride can’t help but marvel at the way the 19-year-old third baseman is rampaging through the double-A Eastern League. Through 47 games, Guerrero is batting an unfathomable .426/.474/.716 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs, numbers so gaudy every conversation about the Blue Jays in Toronto, and to some degree the wider baseball world as well, ends up focusing on why he hasn’t been called up yet.

That precise question was even being asked by a reporter from the local TV station in Manchester on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ve said it to numerous people that Vladdy can go play in the big leagues right now — everybody knows that — and handle himself just fine,” says Fisher Cats manager John Schneider, who figures he’s done more interviews this year than he did during his six seasons of pro ball and as a coach since 2008. “If he leaves (New Hampshire) it’s obviously because it’s well deserved by him. A lot of it really just depends on what’s going on up in Toronto. Until I get that call, I’m going to enjoy writing him into the three-hole every night.”

After going 1-for-5 on May 29, Guerrero Jr. was hitting .462 for the month with nine home runs and 10 doubles

Amid the maelstrom his prolific bat is causing, the teenager drawing all the attention quietly lets his work and his play do the talking. Four-and-a-half hours before gametime, Guerrero and Juan Kelly take the field at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium to do some footwork drills at third base with position coach Andy Fermin, moving around a set of markers in the dirt to mimic the ideal path to take on certain grounders.

“Footwork, especially on the backhand when he has to stop and throw” is key, says Fermin. “He’s 240, 250 pounds and I feel like he’s got to stay low and use his feet and go around the ball so he can have a better route to the ball.”

A short while later Blue Jays shortstop Aledmys Diaz, with the Fisher Cats for a rehab assignment, stands to the side watching, jumping in between reps with a few pointers.

Then, after an impressive display during batting practice, Guerrero spends 10 minutes with the six reporters seeking his attention on this day, including the local TV guy who suggests double-A is too easy for him.

“It’s not that it’s going easy — it’s the way that I’m working and everything is going well,” Guerrero says in comments interpreted by Fermin.

That’s followed up by a question on whether he’s ready for a call-up and his thoughts on joining the Blue Jays, to which Guerrero offers the boilerplate replies of controlling what he can control and getting better every day.

Asked what he needs to improve on, Guerrero answers everything, which is both an easy cliché to fall back on and a persistent motivation for the young third baseman.

“The most encouraging thing about Vladdy for fans is that he continues to get better,” says second baseman Cavan Biggio. “He struggled a lot when he came to high-A and he didn’t start getting hot until the end of the year. Then you could see, OK, he could be pretty amazing. Then he shows up in camp, makes little adjustments in the off-season, and obviously he gets results. Defensively he’s gotten a lot better at third base, and I just think where he is now and where he was last year, and who knows where he’ll be in three or four years, it’s just encouraging as an organization, as a teammate that he works hard to get better every day — and does.”

Hours later Guerrero hits his 11th homer and drives in three runs to lead the way in an 11–2 victory over the Portland Sea Dogs. He was 1-for-5 on the day, which dropped his May batting average from .475 to .462 (48-for-104). Over the course of the month he has racked up nine home runs and 10 doubles.

“The only thing I changed from last year to this year is that last year with two strikes, I tried to get low and I’m not doing that this year,” says Guerrero. “My dad gave me that advice and said that I’m a power hitter and power hitters don’t do that.”

One question the Blue Jays have been asking themselves is what a period of struggle will look like for Guerrero, and whether he needs to experience one in the minor-leagues before he hits the majors so he’ll have a process of how to handle a down period on the bigger stage.

So far, over his two-plus seasons of pro ball, there was a 6-for-39 stretch with three walks and 10 strikeouts over 10 games when he made his debut at age 17 with rookie-ball Bluefield. He finished with an .808 OPS in 62 games. Last year, after his mid-season promotion from low-A Lansing to advanced-A Dunedin, he endured an 11-for-49 rut with six walks and 11 strikeouts from July 12–26. He ended up with a .944 OPS in 48 games.

Beyond those two brief periods, Guerrero has enjoyed a whole lot of exceptional, sustained success.

“I’ve had those times (of struggle) and I kept my head high and went out there and did my best,” says Guerrero. “Keep working and keep competing because the game is not going to stop there. It continues, so keep working and keep competing.”

There is a school of thought among some player-development people that there’s a danger in having a player fail for the first time in the big leagues. A relatively recent cautionary tale for Blue Jays fans is Travis Snider, who also stomped the minors, debuted at age 20 as a sure-thing prospect, enjoyed a strong start, struggled soon after and never ended up reaching his ceiling.

Schneider’s view is that while it’s preferable that players learn how to handle tough times in the minors first, it’s not essential.

“You don’t want to say Vladdy is a little bit different, but he’s a really special player,” says Schneider. “To sit around and wait for a guy to struggle a little bit — it may not happen. It’s a good thing for players to go through and to work it out themselves, but if that time never comes, then the player is telling you something.”

Guerrero has made headlines with his plate exploits, but he's also working to improve his play at third base

Early in May, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said in an interview with Sportsnet that the developmental priorities for Guerrero were “really two things: It’s first-step quickness and how that impacts his defence, and [being the] best possible teammate, because he has the potential to be a leader.”

While Fermin has done the heavy lifting on the defensive end, Schneider has been hard at work encouraging him to be vocal when he deems it necessary.

The manager, who also worked with Guerrero last year at Dunedin, describes the young slugger as a joyful kid who cracks jokes and does goofy stuff like take grounders with a catcher’s mask on just to get some laughs.

“He’s got a fun, easy-going way about him,” says Schneider. “Players gravitate towards him.”

That, along with his lofty production, makes Guerrero someone others look up to and provides him the authority to play a leadership role. To groom him for that responsibility, Schneider says he will at times pull Guerrero aside and say to him, “‘Hey, what did you think of that?’ or ‘What did you think of that guy’s effort?’, making sure he’s aware of what’s going on around him and really reinforcing the fact that it’s OK to speak up, it’s OK to correct somebody.”

“Really what it starts with is making sure he’s done everything himself to be prepared for that day and to be a good teammate to help his team win,” Schneider adds. “If he’s done that, it’s so much easier for him to speak up. It’s something that we try to remind him of when those opportunities are there.”

That can be a lot to put on a 19-year-old, but for so many reasons Guerrero is far from a typical kid that age.

“What really separates him — of course he’s a phenomenal hitter — but his maturity and how good of a teammate he is and how he prepares, that’s one thing people shouldn’t overlook,” says Romano. “He’s always out here getting early work. [He’s a] great guy in the locker room and you would never know he’s 19. He carries himself like he’s much older.”

There have been so many highlights for Guerrero through the first two months of the season it’s difficult to keep track of them all. The walkoff homer in the Blue Jays’ pre-season finale at Olympic Stadium in Montreal was just the beginning. On April 9 he drove in six runs against Trenton. On May 3 he hit a homer that totally cleared Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium. On May 7 he crushed a homer off the hotel that sits beyond the left-centre field wall at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. On May 20 he hit a walkoff homer against Binghamton to cap a 4-for-4 day.

He’s taken only five 0-fers all season.

Romano vividly remembers the conversation in the dugout before the home run off the hotel against Portland reliever Jake Cosart, who tops out at 98 mph.

“We were saying among ourselves that with hard throwers, Vlad gets his money’s worth,” recalls Romano. “We’d never seen someone hit it off the hotel. We were saying that in his at-bat and we were like, ‘I bet if Vlad connects he would do it.’ Two pitches later, he hits one off the hotel. That’s just the kind of hitter he is.”

Pentecost was at Olympic Stadium when Guerrero hammered a hanging slider from Cardinals reliever Jack Flaherty to secure a 1-0 victory, a crowd of 25,816 going berserk the way they did for his Hall of Fame father years ago.

“That home run in Montreal, it was almost like being in a movie or something,” says Pentecost. “Watching his approach at the plate, the craziest thing for me is that very, very recently he had more walks than strikeouts and was still hitting .430ish. Like, how, man? God-given or something. He’s crazy to watch. It’s impressive.”

Photo Credits

New Hampshire Fisher Cats