After a horrendous start in 2017, the Blue Jays currently sit two and a half games back of the second wildcard spot that many of us envisioned them contending for. Along with the positive start to the season, we’ve seen the potential breakout of Teoscar Hernandez, J.A. Happ striking out the world, and everyone’s favorite player, Curtis Granderson, taking first pitches. But despite all the positivity (and the negativity over guys like Randal Grichuk, Devon Travis, and Marcus Stroman), the biggest story surrounding the Blue Jays still might be Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Guerrero, a 19-year-old who began the season as the youngest player in double-A, has been off to a excellent start. Whether you like monster home runs, strikeout-to-walk ratios, or scouting tools, Guerrero has the potential to be a generational hitting talent.
When it comes to hitting the baseball, he might not have anything left to prove in the minor leagues. Mix in Kendrys Morales’ slow start to the season and there’s a pretty clear case to be made to call Vladdy up. And many have begun to make it.
From what evaluators are saying, it looks like Guerrero’s bat could play in the majors today. That doesn’t mean he will hit right away. Even special players can struggle when facing major league pitching for the first time. Regardless of if he struggles against major league pitching, it looks like Vlad Jr. isn’t being challenged by minor league pitchers anymore.
But what if calling up Guerrero now is stunting his growth? Not as a hitter, but as a defender.
While Guerrero’s hitting ability will carry him, scouts are not convinced that his defense is so suspect that he needs to DH. Ben Badler of Baseball America, while noting he’s not a natural defender at third base, does think he has been improving.
“With more improvement, Guerrero has the talent to stay at third base, at least early in his career. Wherever he plays this year—Double-A, Triple-A or Toronto—he needs to be somewhere where he can get repetitions every day at third base.”
-Ben Badler, Baseball America
Jeffery Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus isn’t as positive on Guerrero’s long-term prospects at third base, but does believe that given his athleticism, hands and instincts, if he can’t stick at third base, he could be an above-average first baseman in the majors.
With Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak entrenched at third and first base respectively, Guerrero’s path to at bats on the infield corners is blocked for the immediate future. And with a glut of outfielders on the major league roster and in the high minors, combined with Vlad’s lack of reps in the outfield, it’s hard to envision Guerrero playing anywhere other than designated hitter.
That’s a small problem, because if Vlad can play an infield corner in the major leagues, his value to the Jays will be significantly higher than as a full-time DH. It’s harder to contribute when you’re only playing half the time. Since the designated hitter was introduced, only six players under 26-years-old have produced seasons of over 2.0 wins above replacement (WAR) when playing at least 65% of their games at DH. If you increase the bWAR to 3.0, only four players have done it.
|Billy Butler||2011-12||25-26||2.2, 3.0|
|Oscar Gamble||1973-74||23-24||2.1, 3.0|
In addition, only seven designated hitters of any age have put up seasons with a bWAR of over 5.0. Only David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez have done it more than twice. Those are special hitters — ones that Vlad could ultimately turn into — but the highest total there is still only 6.2 WAR.
|+ 5 Wins Above Replacement Seasons as Full-Time DH*|
|David Ortiz||2005-2007, 2016||29-40||5.7|
The important thing to consider is that having Guerrero contribute as a defensive player is still well within the realm of probable outcomes. He is still only 19, and only started playing third base full time last season. The Blue Jays may be right in keeping him in the minors to get the reps he needs. Even if he’s not being challenged offensively.
How Vlad Jr.’s development would be hindered if he spends the bulk of the season at designated hitter isn’t entirely clear. It’s not impossible that he could return to playing the field somewhere in 2019. Jim Rice became a near full-time outfielder after breaking into the Red Sox lineup as a DH. And despite his thick lower half, Vlad looks to be a better base runner than most of the full-time DH’s discussed above. But people like Ben Badler, who extensively evaluate and report on prospects, feel that Vlad Jr. needs to remain at third base if he’s going to continue to improve. It seems like a consideration worth taking seriously. Even hit-first players like Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera, players who Guerrero Jr. has been compared to, have played the bulk of their careers in the field, before moving to designated hitter later on.
Given the state of the baseball economy, it’s natural to roll your eyes when you hear the Blue Jays’ front office talk about Guerrero needing to improve before getting the call. It sounds like a shrouded way to manipulate his service time – like other front offices have done with Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuna. But in the case of Guerrero, there might be a legitimate baseball reason for keeping him down. As exciting as it would be to watch young Vladdy hit at the Rogers Centre right now, he may be better served in the minor leagues working on his defense. It could be the difference between Vlad being a perennial all-star and a perennial MVP candidate.
Lead Photo © Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports