Vladimir Guerrero Jr. pleased with changes to Blue Jays after sour ending last year

Check this out, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. appears to look and sound like he's in mid-season form at batting practice, as newest Blue Jays addition Justin Turner looks on from outside the cage.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — In the aftermath of that gut-wrenching Game 2 loss to the Minnesota Twins last October, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. chose his parting words carefully as he replied to a question about what the Toronto Blue Jays needed to do to progress further. “Decisions,” he replied. “I think we’ve got to get better decisions on everything.”

His comment was one of several made by players that prompted president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins to do some deep organizational navel-gazing with the team’s leaders. Those conversations, several of them in person with Guerrero, Jose Berrios and Bo Bichette at the club’s Player Development Complex, led to many of the process changes around game-planning and communications the Blue Jays have in place for 2024.

As Guerrero returned to the PDC on Monday and participated in the club’s first full-squad workout after manager John Schneider’s morning address to the team Tuesday, he already sees a difference.

“Definitely,” he said in an interview interpreted by Hector Lebron. “Since I got here, since I opened the doors to the clubhouse, you can see a different vibe. Things are getting better everywhere. All the things that you talk about in the off-season with your teammates, stuff like that, things you really want to get better at, it’s paying off and I can see the results right now.”

Guerrero, clearly benefitting from his robust off-season training in the way he crushed baseballs during an impressive early spring batting practice, didn’t want to delve too deeply into his discussions with Shapiro and Atkins.

“But overall, decisions will be the key word and we talked about that, about overall decisions,” he said. “And they told us that they were going to work with that. And so far it’s looking that way. It’s more between everybody, everybody together.”

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Berrios’ early camp impression is similar, which is why he’s grateful for both the way the discussions were handled and how quickly they took place.

Following that fault-line cracking 2-0 loss, in which he was pulled after a leadoff walk in the fourth in favour of Yusei Kikuchi, the right-hander went through “four or five days that were so frustrating for me, but I learned, I understood it.”

During the ensuing meetings, Berrios shared with the Blue Jays, “the way I feel and the way I see things. Also, they explained how and why (decisions were made) and also they apologized for some of the things. We cleared both sides.”

What did they apologize for?

“Something like, not just me but what the players were feeling, they didn’t know,” said Berrios. “Now we let them know how we feel about some situations … decisions, but it’s more communication. We have been working on that already.”

To that end, Schneider’s morning address to the group was an important tone-setter and he chose to look forward rather than back.

“Worrying about ways to win, that was kind of the overall message,” he said. “I’ll leave some of the other stuff in the clubhouse for us. But it was just how do we prepare and how do we win? We’ve talked at length about other things in years past and we still talk about them, but I think if you’re prepared and you’re prepared to win as a group every single night, everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

Berrios liked what he heard from Schneider, saying that his address was reflective of the issues they discussed after the season.

“We want to keep seeing that,” he added.

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Bichette reiterated that notion, saying, “I think everybody’s on the same page, but everybody’s got to do it for the whole season. That’s really what matters. I don’t think we’ve earned the right as a group to be just taking it (for granted) at this point.

“It’s good,” he continued. “We understand that we have to do things better. A lot of people have come in, obviously, very motivated. It’s good to see and I’m excited where we’re at.”

Guerrero is one of the prime reasons for that.

His goal over the winter was to get into the type of shape he was in during previous seasons and to avoid having to play through the “head-to-toe” pain he endured a year ago, when “didn’t have the best preparation” the previous off-season.

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Still, in spite of knee and wrist issues that forced him to miss games, he still played in 156 contests. Underlining his durability is that since 2020, he’s appeared in all but nine games, and he appears poised for more this year after meeting all his off-season goals.

Yet Guerrero’s off-season also included an arbitration clash with the Blue Jays, which was heard Feb. 6 in Phoenix. The next day a three-person arbitration panel awarded his ask of $19.9 million, rather than the club’s offer of $18.05 million, and Atkins said last week that the responsibility for ensuring there was no residual damage lay with him.

They’ve since spoken and Guerrero maturely brushed off what could have been a damaging experience, adding that he heard “nothing in particular” that bothered him during the case.

“You understand you’re going to a hearing and they’re trying to go their way. I’m going to try to go my way. It’s part of it,” he said. “It’s a learning experience. It’s all good. No hard feelings for anyone. I talked to everyone and I want to turn the page and be ready to go.”

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Every moment, of course, matters for him and the Blue Jays since he and Bichette, among others, are now just two seasons away from free agency.

Guerrero and the club discussed a long-term deal last year but with the open market now so close, it becomes more difficult for the sides to find a financial sweet spot that balances opportunity-cost for the player and risk-mitigation for the club.

Still, he’s not closing any doors.

“I’ve been here for nine years, all my career here. I love it here. I’m very open, willing to keep talking about negotiations,” said Guerrero. “Of course, I would love to stay here. But it’s business. I will let my (representatives) work on that.”

Meanwhile Guerrero, along with his Blue Jays teammates, will be focused on making sure the trying end to the 2023 season isn’t repeated in 2024.

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