Seven games is more than a 10th of a regular-season schedule in pandemic baseball but it’s still just decimal-zero-something in a players Major League career. And that’s the message that Bo Bichette sent Sunday when he was asked about the tepid start of Toronto Blue Jays teammate Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
“Seven games,” Bichette repeated twice over the course of his answer, which was essentially: “he’ll figure it out.”
Man, it seems like decades ago since Sportsnet colleague Arash Madani and myself brought you Vlad Jr.’s, first batting practice live on the internet on April 26, 2019 before his Major League debut against the Oakland Athletics. My god but those were giddy days. Blue Jays fans – even those of us with memories that stretch beyond 2015 – had never had a prospect arrive in the majors with as much hype. It all seemed so right: the pedigree (the fact he was born in Montreal and the son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, Sr.), the fact that his progress through the minors was easy to follow; that for hardcore types it was prospect porn the likes of which didn’t exist when guys like Vernon Wells or Carlos Delgado or Roy Halladay were working their way to the majors. This is a franchise that generally hasn’t done hyped prospects, a franchise whose only American League rookie of the year winner is Eric Hinske, who was acquired in a trade.
And Guerrero Jr.’s rise wasn’t just a Toronto-hype thing: much of the games chattering class, including MLB Network, sent folks down to the minors to chronicle Guerrero’s rise. They dissected his swing at double-A and raved about his plate discipline. He was considered one of the most dominant minor league hitters. Ever.
Oh yes. And being chosen to participate in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, despite having hit all of eight career homers at the time … and limping into the break with one homer in 28 games, that one struck eight days before his appearance in the Derby.
There is this thing about the ‘Derby curse,’ that it takes a hitter out of his natural swing and can create issues in the second half. It’s why some hitters decline the invitation, and Blue Jays fans with any type of memory will immediately have the name ‘Alex Rios’ on the tip of their tongue as Blue Jays Exhibit ‘A.’ I’ve heard it mentioned with Guerrero, and I’m not buying it. To begin with, it’s not as if he was tearing the cover off the ball or being an offensive machine at the time of the Derby: he had eight homers, a .249 batting average and a league-average 100 OPS+. Anybody else would have been laughed out off the field.
You know the rest: he didn’t win the Derby but he set records for most homers overall and most homers in the first round. It was “The Summer of Vlad” … and then it just kind of petered out. He hit seven homers the rest of the season, getting just one extra-base hit (a double) in eight games after the break until homering on Aug. 22. That was his last homer until last Tuesday, when Washington Nationals Emilio Bonifacio knocked the ball out of the glove of centre-fielder Victor Robles and over the wall.
In fact, he’d had more position changes – third base to first – then he had homers between Aug. 22, 2019 and July 28, 2020. Curse? He did raise his batting average by 28 points, but the focus shifted toward the number of ground balls he hit, or the number of pop-ups. In the meantime, along came Bichette to take our breath away. Now, Nate Pearson and his 100 miles per hour have arrived. Cavan Biggio, not much fancied in the minor leagues, looks a polished, on-base guy.
Guerrero Jr.? Truth is, right now the biggest thing he has going for him right now is his age (21) and maybe the fact that he gets to learn first base in empty ballparks. Hey, his father had a rough go early as well. The difference, however, was that the elder Guerrero was a lean, wiry athlete who did everything at warp speed, while making some remarkable fielding, throwing and base-running miscues. Even as he started to bulk up through a better diet and a weight lifting and conditioning program, he was always a long-legged mass of muscle. Guerrero Jr. is a completely different body-type, as slow to ignite as his father was explosive. Questions about his conditioning have been at the forefront and they’ll only get more numerous as his offensive numbers stagnate and the Blue Jays continue this notion of using him as a designated hitter two out of every five days.
Look: there was always this idea that the time would come when to put it politely the player would out-grow the position and move across the diamond. That’s no disgrace: bodies change as folks get older. Miguel Cabrera and others have made similar moves. Miguel Sano, whom many use as a comparable for Guerrero, Jr., was moved to first. But the Twins brought in Josh Donaldson and that made it easier to sell the move. Carlos Guillen was with the Tigers when Miggy shifted. The Blue Jays had Guerrero at third in the spring, hiding his workouts at first on the backfields. Then they made the move after the pandemic pause, replacing Guerrero with … Travis Shaw? Joe Panik? Brandon Drury? And then the DH stuff happened. If this season is about development, why is he DHing? If it’s about winning … well, wait, now: are you saying you can’t win with Guerrero Jr., at first? What’s next: playing defence for him in the ninth? That’s no way to treat a guy you view as a cornerstone, is it? Why doesn’t Bichette ever need to DH? Why does Lourdes Gurriel Jr., only DH when he’s hurt?
You can see why this is a talking point. Especially given the vacuum of on and off-the-record knowledge that helps channel the narrative during a baseball season, it’s easy to see folks making the connection: that two plus two equals he’s out of shape after a three-month pause and he has been forced to move position as a result.
It seems to me that this worrying about Guerrero Jr.’s conditioning would be a nit-pick if he were hitting something more than .172, wasn’t being over-matched by good fastballs up in the zone, wasn’t chasing slop out of the zone … and that at least part of it is that he is a victim of this crazy, hyper-compressed, COVID-19 reality. Seven games. Not much to go on, really, but the concern is understandable, since so far there has been scant evidence of the type of player Guerrero was in the minors and ample evidence of our worst fears. Maybe we just have to get used to the idea that Guerrero Jr., really is a prospect, with all that entails …
• A subtle reminder to those who blame commissioner Rob Manfred about baseball’s issues with COVID-19: make sure you’re blaming him for the right stuff. It was the players who were quick to shoot down the concept of ‘bubble cities’; it was the players who wanted – what? 100 games – and the players who originally balked at the health and safety protocols as being too draconian. True, it would probably take multiple bubble cities to make baseball work, most likely cities with retractable roof stadiums to prevent rainouts … but the players’ response was such that nobody much wanted to investigate any further. The biggest issue I have with the baseball commissioner’s handling of this is the manner in which he allowed this whole situation to become wrapped up in CBA matters. But then, all Manfred does is execute the wishes of ownership …
• Blue Jays reliever Shun Yamaguchi has said he is experiencing difficulty with the baseball used by MLB, which is different from the one used in Japan. I have no reason not to believe him … but surely somebody would have looked into this before offering him two years and $6.35 million, no? Let’s hope pitching coach Pete Walker’s inkling that they’ve managed to make some mechanical tweaks over the weekend bear fruit. There is something to be said for leaving alone a guy with a track record of success in Japan until he realizes it won’t work in the majors …
• White Sox’s rookie Luis Robert was the recipient of a lot of pre-season love but keep an eye on five-foot-eight Nick Madrigal, who had a four-hit game Sunday in his third appearance in the majors becoming just the second White Sox player in the last 70 years with a four-hit game in his first three big-league games …
• There is no such thing as “just” a stint on the injured list these days, especially now that Red Sox’s starter Eduardo Rodriguez has been shut down for the season due to heart inflammation related to his bout with COVIDD-19. Joey Votto’s addition to the Reds IL is of concern. August is a banner month for him in normal days: his .456 career on-base percentage in the month trails only Ted Williams (.480), Babe Ruth (.470) and Lou Gehrig (.460);
• The Twins have come as advertised. Better, even. The pitching staff has posted an ERA of 0.80 in its last five games and this weekend held the Indians to two or fewer hits in consecutive games for the first time since the 1986 Twins held the A’s to two or fewer hits on Aug. 1-2;
• Time to bang the drum for Astros rookie pitchers: they’ve tossed 38 1/3 innings this season – almost half the teams total – and has given up five earned runs (1.17). The Astros have used 10 rookies so far and will rely on them even more now that closer Roberto Osuna is on the IL with elbow soreness ….
• My guess is unless the numbers change dramatically or a vaccine is developed we are going to see the NHL and NBA forced to return to the bubble concept to begin their 2020-2021 regular seasons. NBA Players Association executive director Michelle Roberts is already discussing the possibility and the fact that two of Major League Baseball teams most seriously impacted by the coronavirus appear to have contacted the illness in Atlanta and Minneapolis – the latter a non-hot spot where the Cardinals played two games before testing positive in Milwaukee – only adds to the idea that travel for sports cannot be on the table until the U.S. has a handle on this. I have no idea how the NFL and U.S. college football will proceed, but don’t worry: like baseball, they will …
THE END GAME
Derek Jeter’s charmed baseball life is over. Two years ago, he was hammered at the Winter Meetings for letting vice-president and G.M. Michael Hill take the heat for the fire-sale of Giancarlo Stanton as well as the manner in which he spoke to Stanton. During voting on his near-unanimous Hall of Fame induction, Hall of Famers Tony Perez and Andre Dawson suggested they would boycott the ceremony over the manner in which they were fired by Jeter after he became president of the Marlins. That induction ceremony was of course delayed by the pandemic … but now Jeter finds himself being questioned about a lack of leadership in his team after the Marlins ‘boys will be boys’ approach to monitoring exposure to the coronavirus played a significant role in shutting down a fifth of the schedule over the weekend.
It’s not just all Florida, either: the Tampa Bay Rays played six games in the COVID-19 ravaged state and managed to get out unscathed. The Marlins, meanwhile, seem to have come into contact with the virus because of a laissez-faire night on the town in Atlanta and seemed to have voted as a team to play a Sunday game in Philadelphia at least suspecting they might be in the middle of an outbreak. Look: it’s tough to blame somebody out-right for getting sick, especially considering the mish-mash of messaging south of the border. But the evidence suggests there are things that can be done to limit the risk for folks not lucky enough to work or live in a bubble-like NHL, MLS and NBA players – especially off the field. But to get back to Jeter: I had a wise baseball man tell me when Jeter became involved with the Marlins that he hoped the presence of Jeter in the room might help keep at bay some of ownership’s worst instincts when it came to the next round of collective bargaining negotiations; that Jeter might, in fact, be able to serve as a go-between as a person with a foot in both camps when talks get dicey, which they will because it seems obvious that some form of salary cap is going to be on the table. Considering there is a lot of chatter that Marlins majority owner Bruce Sherman was part of a group of owners who would rather not have played at all this summer, that sentiment feels a little utopian right now. Jeter’s stint in management seems as uninspired as his final season as a player …
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p,m, ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights along the Sportsnet Radio Network. Starting July 20, he will host Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET.