TORONTO – The immediate focus around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this spring revolves around his remarkable physical transformation and how much, if any, third base he’s going to play while serving as the primary first baseman this season.
Both are important, and to a large degree intertwined given how it’s only thanks to the former that the Toronto Blue Jays can realistically entertain the latter. Full credit to him for that.
Still, his conditioning and his defensive alignment are only part of the overriding bigger picture with Guerrero Jr. which is all about him becoming the superstar player portended by his immense abilities. To that end, the more significant changes in the soon-to-be-22-year-old may very well lie more in the developing maturity that fuelled him through a difficult 2020 and a winter of gruelling workouts, rather than in him doing the exercises themselves.
Over the winter, he wasn’t hitting the gym at the behest of the front office, but rather due to a new ownership of his career. When he reported to summer camp last July at 282 pounds, he took accountability for letting himself go during the shutdown by apologizing to his teammates. He worked relentlessly before games to get himself in shape to salvage his campaign.
Ruminating on matters back home in the Dominican Republic afterwards, Guerrero recognized that he’d fallen behind peers like Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. He decided that he wouldn’t be outworked any longer.
All the gains since are by-products of his understanding that talent alone wasn’t going to be enough. And that the only way for him to make amends and be a leader on the Blue Jays was to make sure he was putting in the work to realize his franchise-player potential.
“Well, for the last couple of years, they knew I was coming here out of shape, I didn't prepare myself very well,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, said of his teammates. “I felt like at that moment [at summer camp] they needed an apology from me. And I just talked to them for a while on that and the good thing about that, they accepted my apology and right then they talked to me, they motivated me saying, you know what, it's in the past, start over again, start getting ready we know what you're capable of, let's move on.”
Manager Charlie Montoyo described Guerrero admitting a mistake at the time as an important first step. But promising to make changes is one thing, following through on them is another.
“He did it,” said Montoyo, “and he looks really good.”
Rowdy Tellez, who trimmed down a burly frame like Guerrero last spring, saw the changes last summer and over the winter during check-ins at the complex in Dunedin, Fla., praising his fellow first baseman for working, “really, really hard.”
“For the player that he is, the hype that surrounds him, it’s tough to sit there and look at yourself and take that in and he did. That’s really mature,” Tellez said. “You can even see it in the way he moves, the way he talks, everything he does, mannerisms. He is very happy and very excited for the season because of the changes he's made. A Vlad that can be happy and excited and healthy and ready to move could be one of the most dangerous players in baseball.”
The Blue Jays saw evidence of that over the course of the season, which Guerrero began with unstable hacks like the one from opening day against Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays below, and finished with the stable aggression of swings like the one against Keegan Akin of the Baltimore Orioles from the regular-season finale swing beneath.
Even as he was the only Blue Jays player to appear in all 60 games last season, Guerrero confessed to feeling slow on the bases and defensively, saying he’d “feel a lot of fatigue after 10 ground balls” and that he couldn’t “trust my legs.”
“I wasn’t getting there,” he continued. “I wasn’t getting to the groundballs. And, of course, at the plate, sometimes I couldn't stay back enough on the ball.”
His off-season workouts, documented through his Instagram posts, were designed to address his quickness, strength, agility, balance, endurance – all the stuff needed to excel through the grind of 162.
It’s that training that allows the possibility of third base to even be a talking point this spring.
Montoyo revealed that, as part of their spring player meetings Wednesday, he and GM Ross Atkins told Guerrero to “become a Gold Glover first baseman,” adding that he’d get some reps at third base and they’d see how it goes.
A reasonable question to ask is why bother, given that, to improve the club’s overall defence, it may make more sense to have Guerrero be the jack of one defensive trade than risk him being the master of none he was last year.
But the Blue Jays, as you might have noticed, love their versatility and Montoyo made a fair point when he said, “you can only play nine guys, I want to have options because there are a lot of guys who deserve to play.”
“My first baseman is Vlad Guerrero and my third baseman is Cavan Biggio,” added Montoyo. “But if we’re facing a tough lefty and I’m looking to get Biggio a day off, then Vladdy can play third, Gurriel can come to first. I’ve got more options like that. And that’s the whole point of these guys getting reps in a lot of different spots. But I want Vlad to become the best third baseman he can become and Biggio the best third baseman he can become, and the only way they can do that is getting many reps in those spots.”
That Guerrero is ready for them is only part of story. The change in mentality that got him there is what really matters, and as long as it’s a lasting one, few off-season developments will have as lasting an impact on the Blue Jays.
“I prepared myself mentally, regardless,” Guerrero said of his defensive positioning. “If I'm going to play third base, I've got to get better, so I'll be ready. If I'm going to play first base, I know I've got to go out there and get better. That's the way I prepared for this year. I know I'm going to have my shots. I'm going to play third. I'm going to play first. I've got to keep working very, very hard every day on those two positions.”