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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays made the bold decision to move phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. across the diamond. The Jays third baseman has become the new first baseman. The move in and of itself was not all that bold. It was predictable that, at some point, the stocky third-sacker would make the move. Guerrero did grade out as the worst defender in baseball last season. It’s evident that the young slugger’s offense was a far better part of his game than his defence.

The boldness of the move is in the timing of the decision.

As a general manager, I always wanted to make decisions that set players up for success. For instance, I preferred to promote prospects to the majors when they were on a hot streak at Class AAA. I would often call up prospects on the road so as to avoid the instant pressure of the home crowd. I preferred not to have a rookie make his debut against an opponent’s ace pitcher.

A position change, two weeks before the season, is not setting a player up for success. Sure, Guerrero took some ground balls at first base back in the original spring training but it wasn’t with short-term intent of a new role.

What harm would come from Vlad Jr. playing third base this season and giving him the entire off-season 2021 to practice the transition?

My experience is that position changes are best served as a result of an end-of-the-season meeting where the players buys-in and has an entire off-season to commit to the change. To be fair, Guerrero is saying all the right things. But this feels rushed. It may be that the Jays calculate that the combination of Guerrero at first base and Travis Shaw at third won’t be any worse than the other way around so why not start the learning curve for Vlad Jr.

Fans expectations need to be managed though. Travis Shaw is at best an adequate defender at third base and there will be steep learning curve for Guerrero. Not just anyone can play first base.

The other logic for making a move like this is Vlad Jr. will be able to just focus on hitting as a first baseman. I would argue that defence will be even more of a distraction for him this year with the sudden change than playing subpar defence at third base would have been.

This is a season where I wanted Guerrero to get in better shape and buy into his health and conditioning. I worry that as a first baseman, he may think conditioning is less important. I wanted to have him experience a comfortable 60 games to focus and blossom into the hitter that he is capable of becoming. Now he may be worried about his defence as a first baseman which can distract from his offence.

As a general manager, these are things that one considers when making a decision like this. Maybe the impact won’t be as substantial as I worry. I hope it works out and he explodes this season, but the risk of making the move now outweighs the reward for me.

 

Home Sweet Home

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Ballplayers are creatures of habit. They don’t like surprise or disruptions to their routines. They like to plan out their days. Many players wake up at the same time every day. Eat the same type of meals and go through the same game preparation day-in and day-out. Once a player finds something that works, they tend to stick to the plan and process.

Opening Day is less than a week away and the Blue Jays are the only team in baseball that don’t have a confirmed plan where they will be playing their home games. The province of Ontario and the city of Toronto have granted their approval for the Jays to play their home games at the Rogers Centre. This also means they are giving approval for visiting teams and the Jays to travel into and out of Canada to get to their games. The plan won’t be official unless they get the approval of the federal government to waive the fourteen-day quarantine required for those entering the country.

This is good news as Toronto is by far the best option for the Jays. The "protective bubble" the team is living in now is conducive to the safest and most productive structure. In a season where getting off to a fast start will be critical for a club’s success; comfort, safety and predictability are imperative. Neither of the two alternatives to Toronto are comforting. Dunedin, Fla., is in the centre of a state where the coronavirus has spiked dramatically. It is not a safe place to relocate the 60-player pool and staff. The other option is Sahlen Field in Buffalo, where the facility and lighting aren’t up to major league standards. Plus, there is no obvious location for the alternate site for the remainder of the player pool to be stationed.

If the federal government overrules the province and city leaders and the Jays can’t play in Toronto, Buffalo is the second-best option. Keeping players and staff healthy is more important than the quality of the facility. Dunedin would provide a high-quality playing facility (TD Ballpark) and convenient access to rest of the player pool at the minor league campus. However, the profound spike in positive COVID-19 tests in Florida makes that too risky.

More than anything, an official decision needs to be made so the players can get comfortable with the plan. They need to visualize their routine and have a sense of their work and living situation. If the young team is going to shock the baseball world in this sprint of a season, they need to be set-up for success. Knowing where they will play is the most basic first step.

 

Spitting Seeds

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- The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves at a competitive disadvantage just because of where they play. The health and safety protocols stipulate that if local requirements around COVID-19 protocols prevail over baseball’s policies. In both Washington D.C. and Los Angeles County, there is a requirement that if a person has been in contact with someone who tested positive then they need to quarantine for 14 days. For both teams, the majority of players who have been inactive in summer camp so far are players who have not had positive tests but just happen to be in the vicinity of those that did. The rule is so restrictive that the Nationals are actually considering moving their season operation to their minor league team in Fredericksburg, Va. Not relocating may cost both clubs a chance at the World Series.

- Blue Jays’ first round pick Austin Martin is a very talented young player. I have heard a lot of talk about his versatility and how valuable it is. But don’t let that make you think his best value is as a utility player, who plays third base one day, second base another day and outfield the next. Martin is an everyday player. His versatility is valuable in building a team, but at some point, he needs to lock in one position. Ross Atkins will have options in the next couple of years when considering trades and free agents. Ultimately, the market will likely dictate what position Martin plays. If the Jays can land an impact corner infielder, then Martin will play as an outfielder. If they get the impact outfielder, then Martin will be a third baseman.

- Guerrero’s move to first base has a negative impact on Rowdy Tellez. Tellez was hoping to take his offensive game to the next level this season while playing some first base with Travis Shaw. It seems that he will get the bulk of the at bats as designated hitter now, while sharing some of the first base duties with Guerrero. Not every player can handle the DH role. It can be mentally challenging to sit on the bench, between at bats. Many hitters feel that they need the flow of the game while playing defence to be their best on offense. It takes a special breed to serve as a DH. It remains to be seen how Tellez will handle this role.

- Eleven umpires have opted out of the season because of the coronavirus. The game of baseball structurally offers social distancing on the field because of positioning everywhere except home plate. It is only recommended that umpires wear face coverings under their protective masks. This is a cause for concern, as they lean over catchers the entire game to call balls and strikes. MLB is working to have face shields available for umpires to wear under their masks, but those too will be optional. It seems to me that it should be mandatory for every umpire to wear a mask on the field. I understand that it could be burdensome on home plate umpires in really hot weather. I would be in favor of using the electronic umpires for balls and strikes this year while the home plate umpire stands six feet back from the catcher and is there solely to handles other calls at the plate.