TORONTO — As the Toronto Blue Jays finish off playing out the string, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is already looking forward to the off-season.
But it’s not because he’s desperate for the downtime after playing into the month of September for the first time in his life.
Rather, it’s a chance to start the process of reshaping his body and, dare I use the cliché, come into spring training next February in the best shape of his life in an effort to make third base his long-term home and be better prepared for the 162-game grind.
“I think that’s the key for me to have a great year next year,” Guerrero said. “I feel good the way I am right now, but I’m going to try to come back a lot better. Maybe try to be 15 or 20 pounds less for spring training and I will take it from there after that.”
Vladdy Jr. plans on heading back to the Dominican Republic to train with his uncle, Wilton Guerrero, just as they’ve always done, but he’s debating showing up at the Blue Jays’ facility in Dunedin for a stretch, as well, something the team has been hoping he’d consider.
“I’m going to go back to the Dominican and work out with my family,” Guerrero said. “We do that every off-season, and then maybe I’ll go back to Tampa for a month to work out with the team.”
Listed at 250 pounds this season as a 20-year-old, Guerrero’s playing weight – depending on who you talk to – has fluctuated between 255 and 270 since he made his major-league debut at the end of April.
If Guerrero can even come close to replicating his dedication in the cage and apply it to his conditioning, there’s no reason to think he won’t arrive in Dunedin next spring feeling better prepared to take the next step in his development.
You don’t have to look far for a prime example of what happens when a young player changes his routines away from the field.
In 2018, as a 21-year-old, Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers faced the same questions.
A top 10 prospect in baseball before his arrival in 2017 as a 20-year-old, Devers struggled last season, slashing just .240/.298/.433 with 21 home runs, while also pacing baseball in miscues with the leather, committing 24 errors at third base.
From the prospect pedigree to conditioning to questions about the glove, there are so many parallels between the two young Dominican stars.
The Devers plan is the blueprint and it’s been laid out on the table for Vladdy to follow.
“I know Raffy very well, but everybody’s different,” said Guerrero, who has admitted to not spending much time in the gym in the past. “I have my own plan with my uncle and we’re going to work very hard and I believe I’m going to come back strong.”
Guerrero has already been telling friends around baseball, including countryman and Red Sox third base coach Carlos Febles, to expect to see a different player next spring.
“He’s a big guy and he’s athletic, but something Vladdy told me last night is, ‘I’m going to go this off-season and get in the best shape possible and you’ll see me next year. I’m going to be a different guy,’” Febles relayed. “He wants to be good and he knows what he needs to do. His dad already told him. He said, ‘My dad is already on top of me about it.’ You’ll see him. He’ll be better because he’s hungry.”
Devers’ dedication paid off in a big way and he’s put together a monster campaign.
At the plate, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball this season, slashing .307/.359/.551 with a career-high 31 homers and a whopping 85 extra-base hits, overall.
Defensively, Devers has still committed 22 errors — second-most in baseball behind Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson’s 25 — but the metrics and reports have generally been a lot more favourable and he’s viewed as a perfectly acceptable bat-first third baseman.
“It was about him making that commitment and understand why you have to be in better shape,” Febles said. “If you want to be good, you better do it, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Meeting the expectations
Guerrero’s season has not gone as planned. But that’s not to say it hasn’t been a success, either.
To understand why a .276/.345/.444 slash line as a 20-year-old is a bit of a disappointment to some, you have to understand the enormous expectations heaped upon him.
He was — and still is — dubbed a generational talent.
Many, math model projections included, thought he’d be an elite-level bat from the jump.
At times, he’s looked like just that, but the same sort of machine-like consistency that we saw during his journey through the minor leagues hasn’t been there.
Getting beat inside at times and swinging at pitches he normally wouldn’t have led to an elevated ground-ball rate at 49 per cent.
As a right-handed hitter with an elite hit tool, it’s almost shocking to see he’s batting just .219/.301/.352 with nine extra-base hits in 143 plate appearances against southpaws.
Even the elite exit velocities have dwindled as the season has gone on, perhaps a sign that Guerrero is tiring physically.
That’s something Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers has noticed with Devers.
“When you’re mentally and physically ready to go, we’re seeing the byproduct of that,” Hyers said. “When you are in shape, you can come in every day and get the work in and not get worn out. I think that really helped him out.”
How long at the hot corner?
With all that being said, no one is questioning the hitting prowess or the ultimate ceiling in that area.
It’s the definition of a middle-of-the-order bat, even if he hasn’t gone all Juan Soto or Yordan Alvarez on the baseball world.
But the glove is another story, a narrative that’s just beginning to take shape.
The plan was always to bring Guerrero up as a third baseman and hope the tough balance of trying to develop while also produce at the major-league level wasn’t too much of a burden.
That’s easy to do in a rebuild setting, but as wins become more important in 2020 and beyond, below-average defence will become a problem and the glove will be under the microscope.
Both the eye test and the metrics haven’t been kind through Vladdy Jr.’s first 92 games at third base in a Blue Jays uniform.
His defensive fWAR of -8.9 sits dead last in baseball among third basemen.
Only Devers has made more errors than Guerrero’s 17, but that’s come in 500 more innings played.
His Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) mark of -3 is 42nd out of 56 third baseman with at least 200 innings in the field this season.
There is a base set of skills, however, and Blue Jays infield instructor Luis Rivera again pointed to the Devers comparison when talking about Guerrero’s glove.
“It’s a great example,” Rivera said. “They’re both Dominican, they both play third base and they’re both young and they know they have to work a little bit on their body. Devers did a great job this year coming into spring training when we watched him early in the season and now here, he looks great. Hopefully, that’s the same case with Vladdy, that he goes back home and continues to work on his body and come back to spring training in great shape.”
One move to acquire a defensively viable glove to install at the hot corner could change plans in an instant, but the Blue Jays front office knows how valuable their franchise player could be at third base, compared to a move across the diamond to first.
They seem committed to keeping Vladdy at third in 2020, but beyond that all bets are off.
“He’s got to go home [this off-season] and get his rest. He always likes to hit a lot, but he’s got to come to spring training in a better situation where he can play the whole season without any worries and feel like he can go out every day and play third base,” Rivera said. “He’s 20 years old. His body’s got to get better, but his hands are good and his reactions are good. Time will tell. The conditioning that he applies to himself during the off-season in the years to come will dictate if he’s going to stay there or not.”