READING, Pa. – The storybook scene could not have been scripted any better: On baseball’s return to Montreal, a native son and the progeny of one of the Expos’ greatest players ever delivers a victory for the Canadian team with a walkoff home run.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Recalls his exploits in that March 27 exhibition game as perhaps his best moment as a pro. Toronto Blue Jays fans see it as just the first of many thrills he’ll bring them.
Since then the excitement over the game’s top prospect still in the minors has only intensified. Guerrero Jr., Born in Montreal while his father was burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials during eight seasons with the now-defunct Expos, has been on a hitting tear that raised his batting average with the Class AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats to .427, with nine home runs and 46 RBI. His slugging percentage is a cartoonish .707, and he has reached base in 33 consecutive games.
An American League scout who just saw him marveled over his “lightning-quick bat,” advanced approach and “easy power.”.
Guerrero’s rapid offensive development has generated a clamor for his callup among some fans and members of the media, who argue he has nothing left to prove after punishing three levels of the low minors the previous two years. Yes, he may be only 19, but so is Juan Soto and the Washington Nationals promoted the outfielder this week.
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The one who seems in the least hurry is Guerrero himself.
“I’m fine, calm,” he told USA TODAY Sports in Spanish. “I just come to the field to give the best of myself every day. Whenever I cross that white line, I try to improve. I’m not desperate. God knows the right time.”.
The Blue Jays, at 23-27 battling to stay relevant in the American League East, have shown no inclination to rush the third baseman, who’s still polishing his defensive skills after converting from the outfield a few months after receiving a $3.9 million signing bonus in 2015.
Toronto already has an accomplished third baseman in 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson, but he’ll become a free agent after the season and figures to be traded if the club finds itself out of playoff contention in July.
The Blue Jays want Guerrero to be ready to play third at the big-league level when he gets promoted, not just serve as a designated hitter. He has soft hands and a powerful arm, but has a bulky frame (kindly listed as 6-1, 200 pounds), so they’ve been putting him through drills to improve his footwork and lateral quickness.
“The way he responds to those challenges is that he competes, he picks up his level of intensity, he smiles and works even harder,” said Gil Kim, Toronto’s director of player development. “Whereas maybe some other players don’t like challenges, Vladdy is the opposite, and that’s part of what makes him really good. That’s part of what gives us confidence that he will be even better in the future.”.
A club’s decision to call up a player goes well beyond his baseball skills. His ability to relate to teammates, handle the game’s inherent failures and adapt to the pressurized environment in the majors forms a significant part of the evaluation.
Kim tells the story of a day in 2015 when he was scouting a player for the Texas Rangers in the Dominican Republic. It was a Sunday, the one day off aspiring pros get every week, and he noticed two youngsters nearby who turned out to be Guerrero and his cousin Gregory Guerrero, both still amateur players.
“I’m like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ And they say, ‘Oh, we’re over here playing a pickup softball game,”’ Kim recalled. “That’s what stands out to me as well about Vladdy, the passion he has for the game and the smile he has on his face.”.
Guerrero is hardly the only player with distinguished bloodlines on the Fisher Cats. Second baseman Cavan Biggio has a Hall of Fame father as well, former Houston Astros icon Craig Biggio. And shortstop Bo Bichette, ranked by MLB.Com as the Blue Jays’ second-best prospect, is the son of former slugger Dante Bichette, a four-time All-Star.
Despite the language barrier with Guerrero, whose English is functional but still far from fluent, they share a common bond through their upbringing around big league baseball and the attention they get because of their celebrity fathers.
Cavan Biggio, who is enjoying a breakout season at 23, played with both emerging prospects at high Class A last year as well and said he has noticed an increased maturity in Guerrero.
“He’s more consistent with his work and he knows what he has to do from a hitting standpoint,” Biggio said. “Every time he goes up there he’s more intelligent, playing at a high level. He’s come a long way defensively too.”.
Vladimir Jr. Naturally draws comparisons to his father, who was leaner and more athletic in his younger days, a five-tool player with a fearsome arm who in 2002 fell one home run short of a 40-40 season.
But while there are similarities in their swings, the younger Guerrero’s biggest baseball influence may have come from his uncle Wilton, a former major leaguer who runs the family’s baseball academy in the tiny town of Don Gregorio, outside the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.
Wilton is especially adept at developing hitting skills and work ethic, and Junior’s approach is decidedly more disciplined than that of his notoriously free-swinging dad. Guerrero Jr. Has drawn 18 walks against 17 strikeouts this season, a consistent pattern in his three-year pro career.
“I’ve been developing that since I was 8. I never minded drawing a walk,” he said. “And my dad would always tell me, ‘Son, I know you’re not like me. You should look for a good pitch to hit.’ That’s what I do. Once in a while you stray from that, but I’m always looking for the right pitch to make good contact.”.
That ability to put the barrel on the ball, with enormous power, will be Guerrero’s ticket to the majors, whenever that might happen. At that time, one of the constant presences in his dad’s career likely will follow him to Toronto.
Vladimir Sr.’S mother, Altagracia, who fed plenty a major leaguer as she accompanied her son during his career, now looks after her grandson in the minors, along with her husband Damian.
They provide a sense of home and keep him grounded even as the hype around Vladimir Jr. Continues to build.
“He doesn’t get caught up in it,” Fisher Cats manager John Schneider said. “He comes to work, he has fun, he’s an awesome teammate. Guys love being around him. For him it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and hopefully we have him ready when it happens.”.