TORONTO – The first thing you notice about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the smile.
Sort of like the multi-hit games.
There’s an obvious joy the 19-year-old displays on a daily basis, even if he’s now in his ninth straight month of baseball, the longest grind of a season the sport’s top prospect has endured so far.
That’s part of the test.
In the batter’s box, they are few and far between.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Blue Jays minor-league hitting co-ordinator Guillermo Martinez, who joined the organization from the Chicago Cubs prior to the 2018 season. “I have not seen a player like him at any level or in any organization. He obviously has the tools, but most importantly he’s very dedicated, loves the game and loves to have fun, and I think that plays into how successful he is.”
The reason Vladdy Jr. was sent to the Arizona Fall League in October, a 30-game schedule that wraps up this weekend, was the opportunity to continue his progression in a developmental setting, the final feather in a prep stage cap that has lasted far less time than anyone could have imagined when he stepped to the plate for his first professional at-bat on June 23, 2016 in Bluefield, W.Va.
One year later, he was the talk of baseball.
Two years later, he was the consensus top prospect in baseball as a teenager.
Three years later?
There’s no doubt he’ll be in the big leagues, and some, including numbers-based projection models, believe he’ll already be one of the best hitters in baseball next June at the tender age of 20.
Not counting what’s expected to be a short, service-time induced stint with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons next April, suiting up for the Surprise Saguaros in the AFL will be the last uniform Guerrero wears that’s not MLB-issued Toronto Blue Jays gear.
“Stay out of his way, that’s about it,” said Saguaros manager Stubby Clapp, who’s been watching the teenager pick up where he left off from his 2018 minor-league season that was split between Double-A and Triple-A.
“He obviously knows how to swing a bat and he’s got a good approach at the plate and he’s got a good eye, so right now you stay out of his way and let him do his thing. As things come along, he’s smart enough and intelligent enough that he’ll ask for help. A guy like that, you just watch him flourish.”
He’s speaking about the bat, one that’s already been compared to Hall of Famers like his father, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., as well as future Hall of Famers like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
But a secondary reason he’s also being talked about in the same vein as Miggy and Sir Albert is the fact his glove isn’t on the same level as his bat, and no one is quite sure how long he’ll be able to stick at third base.
The answer to that question likely has a lot to do with the Jays’ desire to deal with below-average defence, how other infielders with the bat capable of playing third in the pipeline develop, as well as outside opportunities.
That’s an obvious focus of his time in the AFL, even if some will scoff and say it’s all about delaying starting the service clock and gaining a seventh season of contractual control.
Smart business or smart development aside, there are real questions about his body type and glove as his big-league debut nears.
Clapp grins when asked about the Rawlings that Guerrero Jr. carries around between at-bats.
“He’s only 19,” the 45-year-old, newly minted St. Louis Cardinals first-base coach said. “When I was 19, I was still playing hockey. You’ve got to think about it that way. He’s literally maybe just a freshman in college and he’s already here in the Arizona Fall League doing what he’s doing.”
That’s the thing with Vladito. His bat has so far outpaced his glove that there’s not much the Blue Jays can do.
“I think he’s in a good spot right now,” Clapp added. “At 19 years old and playing third base like he is, there’s a lot of upside to him. He needs to continue to work on his agility and left and right and reaction off the bat, and there’s all kinds of promise there and room for improvement, but he’s showed that he can make great plays – he’s already made a couple diving plays here and able to make some plays on tough hops. He’s got a good arm and gets it across the infield real nice.”
While the extreme progress and natural ability with the bat is obviously a positive in the grand scheme of things, he hasn’t been given the usual time to learn the nuances of baseball, let alone the nuances of being a millionaire adult on the verge of his 20th birthday next March.
The routine of coming to the ballpark, going through the work it takes to prepare mentally for major- league pitchers, as well as the physical work to get his body ready as many as 162 times a year, they’re all important.
“I think even the setback with his knee [in June] ended up being a positive because it solidified a better routine, a better physical routine of how he prepares, how he recovers, how he rests, recognizing that people talk about his overall size and being a 240-pound individual and the stress that that can have on you,” Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “There’s also a lot of upside to [being that size] because the ball’s travelling a little quicker off his bat. There’s a lot of power in there and we want to harness every bit of it for as long as possible.”
Through all of attention as his star ascended over the last 24 months, the smile hasn’t left Guerrero Jr.’s face, even as the media requests and autograph hounds multiplied.
That was quite evident in Arizona, noticed by everyone, including coaches and teammates.
“He’s probably one of the most humble kids I’ve seen in a position that he’s in with the amount of media attention and expectations that’s been put on him,” Clapp said. “He handles it with dignity and respect."