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Steve Phillips

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been tearing it up since the all-star break. The young Blue Jays slugger has a .331 batting average with a .392 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage. He has 10 doubles and seven home runs with 34 RBI in the 40 games he has played since putting on a show in the Home Run Derby in Cleveland. He looks like the Vladdy that we all expected to see at the major-league level after hitting .331/.414/.531 in the minors.

Guerrero looks much more confident right now than he did when he was first called up. He’s hunting fastballs and thriving in RBI situations. He’s using the whole field and exhibiting excellent plate discipline. He’s showing all the traits of an elite hitter.

Everyone wants to know what type of player he’ll be in the years to come. They want to know how many homers to expect. What about his batting average and OPS? Can he win a batting or home run title? Is he a legit Triple Crown threat?

Here is how I would describe Guerrero: He’s a line-drive hitter with power, which is different than a pure power hitter.

Guerrero doesn’t have the lofty launch angle of some of the game’s top sluggers. An average major-league hitter has a 12.7-degree launch angle, while Guerrero’s is just 6.8 degrees. He doesn’t swing with nearly the uppercut that many other hitters in the game employ. Guerrero swings more level and through the baseball instead of under the baseball. This will allow him to hit for a better average and have fewer swings-and-misses, but it also limits the height with which the ball will come off his bat. He showed in the derby that he has the ability to create serious launch angle if he desires, but that isn’t his most natural swing.

Don’t get me wrong, Guerrero is strong enough to hit a line drive over the wall. He produces excellent exit velocity when he makes contact. Plus, he will look for counts and pitches to increase his launch angle. That’s why I believe he’ll hit 35 home runs on average while also adding 40 doubles. I see him as a guy who can hit .310 to .325 with a .380 on-base percentage. He’ll also have an OPS over .900 on a regular basis. He’s comparable to Rockies star Nolan Arenado offensively, even though he won’t have the benefit of hitting in Coors Field.

 

AL Rookie of the Year race

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I think Guerrero still has an outside shot at winning the AL Rookie of the Year. Yordan Alvarez of the Houston Astros is the likely leader right now, hitting .324/.421/.689 with 19 doubles and 21 homers in just 62 games. Alvarez has already driven in 62 runs and scored 43. He is a 6-foot-5, 225-pound physical specimen with a presence in the batter’s box. The 22-year-old is still a kid, but he swings the bat like a man.

But Alvarez is almost exclusively a designated hitter. He has only played in the outfield in nine of his 62 games. Baseball writers have been reluctant to reward DHs with MVP recognition in the past. J.D. Martinez and David Ortiz had monster seasons from the DH role in recent years but didn’t win the MVP award because the fact they didn’t play defence was held against them.

I can’t imagine why the writers wouldn’t use the same logic for the Rookie of the Year Award. If a DH is going to be rewarded, his numbers need to be much better than the position players in consideration.

Alvarez’s offensive production has been off the charts and better than anyone else. It’s currently at a level where I would understand rewarding him despite not playing in the field. But if he cools off and Guerrero keeps swing like he is now, the Toronto third baseman could move past Alvarez.

 

Fisher fizzles in Toronto

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The way the Blue Jays front office talked about outfielder Derek Fisher when they acquired him in the Aaron Sanchez deal, you’d have thought he must have some hardware in his future.

It seemed like he was blocked in the Astros organization because of all of the talent they have there. This was supposed to be an opportunity for Fisher to play regularly and unleash the beast. It hasn’t quite happened the way the Jays would have liked so far, with Fisher hitting .167/.262/.407. His defence hasn’t been very good either.

It is too soon to consider the deal a bust, but his clock is ticking. At 26, Fisher is on the verge of moving from prospect to suspect. He just hasn’t been able to carry over his offensive approach from the minors to the majors. He is striking out more, walking less and hitting for much less of an average.

It could be a matter of trying too hard, which can cause a hitter to expand his strike zone. It’s critical that he make the adjustment now because he is looking like an extra outfielder at best.

The Jays may learn that Fisher wasn’t blocked in Houston – others had just passed him. 

 

Playoff races heating up

A look at the American League playoff picture:

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- The New York Yankees are a lock to win the AL East. They’re just working to get healthy and stabilize their rotation for October.

The Yankees hope to get outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, DH/1B Edwin Encarnacion and 1B Luke Voit back at some point in September. The team will have to work to get those players game-ready without minor-league games for rehab assignments as those seasons are coming to an end.

The Yankees starting rotation, which had been struggling mightily at the trade deadline, is looking pretty locked in with Domingo German, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton elevating their performance.

- The Minnesota Twins are still 3.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central thanks to an offence that continues to pound the baseball. The Twins lead the majors in homers and have tied the MLB record with seven different players hitting 20 home runs this season.  They will break the record when shortstop Jorge Polanco hits his next homer, as he currently has 19.

Minnesota’s pitching has been good enough, but they are hopeful that starters Jake Odorizzi and Jose Berrios have worked through a rough patch and are back on top of their game.

- The Houston Astros are nine games ahead of the Oakland A’s in the West and have all but put them away in the division race. The Astros offence has the largest run differential in the AL (+212), but they trail the Yankees by a game in the race for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage on their side of the playoff bracket.

Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley and Zack Greinke give the Astros the deepest rotation in the game, but the bullpen has its share of injuries and uncertainty. Brad Peacock, Josh James and Ryan Pressley are all working their way back. In past years, the Astros have used starters in the bullpen, but they may not have that luxury this season. They need health in the pen – especially with Pressley, who is their best reliever.

- It is a three-team race for the two AL wild-card spots. If the season ended today, the Indians and A’s would just beat out the Rays. 

Cleveland has dealt with a ton of adversity this season – a roster remake that lacked offence, a broken arm for starter Corey Kluber, a leukemia diagnosis for starter Carlos Carrasco, third baseman Jose Ramirez’s first-half struggles and then surgery to repair a broken hamate bone – but they are finding ways to win with their starting pitching depth, just enough offence and a very good bullpen.

Oakland is doing it again with better-than-expected pitching, a powerful lineup and solid defence. Who knew that Mike Fiers and Homer Bailey would be aces to lead a staff? The Oakland front office did. Shortstop Marcus Semien is having a monster year, as are third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson. The experience of winning 97 games last season and earning a wild-card spot is helping them this year.

The Tampa Bay Rays are holding their own in the wild-card race. Like Oakland, they do it differently in Tampa Bay. They utilize openers and the bullpen more than most teams. They have been tested with their depth, which can be an Achilles’ heel for a small-market team. Manager Kevin Cash makes out his lineup according to matchups with the opposition, hoping to squeeze all the production that he can out of his roster. 

 

A look at the National League playoff picture:

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- The Atlanta Braves are the class of the East. They won’t be caught by the Washington Nationals, who have baseball’s best record since May 24. That says a lot about the Nats but even more about the Braves.

Dallas Keuchel, Mike Soroka, Julio Tehran, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz give them a more- than-adequate starting rotation. They will have to keep an eye on Soroka and Fried’s innings over the next month so they are strong for October baseball.

Former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is running the Braves and made several moves to fortify his bullpen. It has taken some time, but it feels like they are getting better. They have playmakers all over the field led by Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr.

- The St. Louis Cardinals have gotten hot and have separated from the NL Central pack with a 1.5 game lead over the Cubs, who swept the Mets this week, and a 4.5 game lead on the fading Brewers. Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson have emerged as the Cardinals best starters. The bullpen has been good most of the year, and the offensive had picked up due to a re-energized Dexter Fowler

- The Dodgers (88-48) keep on rolling. They have the best record in the NL and are battling the Yankees (88-47) and Astros (87-48) for the best record in baseball, which would give them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Hyun-Jin Ryu has been the Dodgers best pitcher until his last three starts, where he has allowed 18 runs and has gone from a 1.45 ERA to a 2.35 ERA. The bullpen has also become a bit of an issue in L.A., with closer Kenley Jansen blowing three saves in August.

- The wild-card race is starting to clear up a bit in the NL as the Nationals and Cubs have gained some separation among the cast of streaky teams.

The Nationals have the top seed in the wild-card race and continue to play good baseball. The offence continues to manufacture runs and score in any number of ways. Max Scherzer’s back injury is still a concern as he hasn’t pitched five innings in either of his two starts since coming off of the IL. The bullpen is still a question mark, too.

The Cubs are 2.5 games behind the Nationals in the second wild-card position after sweeping the Mets in New York. The Cubs outplayed the Mets in every aspect of the game and won on the road, which has been a challenge all year (28-39). Anthony Rizzo is out with a sore back and they desperately need him back in the lineup as he is a leader on the team.

The Phillies are tough and they battle. The problem is that sometimes they battle themselves as much as the opposition. They’ve had to overcome some booing at home as the natives have gotten restless in Philadelphia. Despite that, they’re just 2.5 games behind the Cubs and still within striking distance.

The Brewers are trying piece together their pitching staff as they deal with injuries and underperformance in the rotation and bullpen. The offence can’t quite carry the load, so they never seem to get any momentum to make up ground.

The Diamondbacks are four games out of the second wild-card spot and have been a good story all season long. They’ve performed better than a team that lost Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke had any right to, but they just don’t have enough talent there to make the playoffs.

The Mets have been one of the game’s streakiest teams. They looked all but dead going into the trade deadline but added instead of subtracting and made a valiant run. But they’ve now lost six straight and went from being just 1.5 games behind the Cubs to five games out. The sporadic offence and bad bullpen will be their demise.