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The only argument in favor of keeping Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the minor leagues

·MLB columnist
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It’s been five weeks since I advocated the Toronto Blue Jays summon Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the major leagues, and in that time the argument to do so has been pulled in diametrically opposed directions. The urgency stemmed from the Blue Jays’ ability to contend for a playoff spot and need for another big bat. Since then, they’ve gone 9-23 and proven themselves non-factors in the American League playoff picture. And now, Vlad Jr. is on the disabled list at AA with a leg injury.

The fact – and it is a fact – that the 19-year-old Guerrero’s bat is major-league-ready, however, has only strengthened. On the season, he is hitting .407/.457/.667 with 11 home runs, 55 RBIs and a 21-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games. Since May 1, he’s been even better: .424/.468/.720. He is ready. He has been ready. And with the cutoff for players to receive a fourth year of arbitration eligibility for being called up clearly passed, there is no compelling reason for him not to be a Blue Jay, unless Toronto plans on keeping him down through the end of April 2019 to preserve another year of service time before he hits free agency.

Weird though it may sound to be talking about a teenager’s free agency, looking more than half a decade into the future with a player of Guerrero’s caliber is good business. And if that is the Blue Jays’ intention – to let this process bleed out until next year and have him under team control through the 2025 season instead of 2024 – then their actions to this point make sense. You can argue with them. You can call them cheap, say they’re isolating a fan base on pace to go to Rogers Centre nearly 1 million times fewer than last season, wonder whether parking one of their 25 best players in the minor leagues irks any of the other 24 currently there. But at least it’s a strategy with some soundness to it.

The problem with the current talking points is they don’t hold even a thimbleful of water. Every scout I’ve spoken with who has seen Guerrero this year does not believe he will stay at third base long-term. Now, the Blue Jays do know Guerrero better than any team, and perhaps they see reasons to keep him there. An objective observer, though, sees Guerrero’s body type, his subpar lateral movement and his huge right arm and thinks: right field or first base. Barring some sort of maturity issue – and there is zero indication that’s the case – Guerrero’s defense is his lone shortcoming, and almost never does glove alone prevent a player from ascending to the major leagues.

Since May 1, Vlad Guerrero Jr. is hitting: .424/.468/.720. He is ready for the majors. He has been ready. (Getty Images)
Since May 1, Vlad Guerrero Jr. is hitting: .424/.468/.720. He is ready for the majors. He has been ready. (Getty Images)

Toronto can’t come out and talk about the real reasons it’s keeping Guerrero down, which is a shame. Depending on the severity of the injury Guerrero suffered Wednesday – farm director Gil Kim told reporters the injury did not seem to be serious – the Blue Jays may have another excuse to bide their time with him. As 19-year-old Juan Soto continues to destroy big league pitching a month into his career, it’s obvious that age alone is no impediment. Vlad Jr. is ready and willing. The Blue Jays are only able, and until they adopt the other two, the only benefit is that Yahoo Sports’ monthly Prospect Heat Check has someone to highlight before its trip around the minor leagues.

Kyler Murray, OF, Oakland (Drafted): The most surprising pick of the 2018 draft carries as much everyday upside as any player available. Were Murray not also the quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners – had he focused strictly on baseball – he might’ve gone first overall. This was the first spring he devoted himself to training with the Sooners baseball team, and he went out and hit .296/.398/.556 with incredible athleticism and potential for an elite glove in center field. The bat speed, the foot speed, the arm – Murray is a veritable toolshed. And even though Oakland is running the risk of injury by allowing him to play football this fall, it’s a chance well worth taking. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Murray can be a star, and when you’re picking ninth overall, that’s exactly the sort of upside worth targeting.

Shane McClanahan, SP, Tampa Bay (Drafted): Early in the spring, McClanahan emerged as a top 5-potential pick. He’s a left-hander. His fastball runs 98 to 100 mph. Then he struggled and plummeted to the 31st pick, where the Rays, who saw him in their backyard at the University of South Florida in Tampa, gladly snatched him. It’s a perfect fit. There are questions about McClanahan’s ability to navigate six or seven innings. In a three-inning burst as a flex-starter, though? Or in a Josh Hader-type role with multiple innings toward the end of the game? The Rays’ creativity suits McClanahan’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly.

Colin Poche, RP, Tampa Bay (Triple-A): Speaking of Hader, in 31 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this season, the left-handed Poche has struck out 61 batters, walked six and allowed 13 hits. His raw stuff isn’t as good as Hader’s, but hitters swing through Poche’s fastball like it’s 10 mph fastball than its typical 89 to 93 mph. Poche, one scout said, has frontline extension, releasing the ball closer to the plate and giving it the perception of coming in faster than it already does. Poche, 24, came to the Rays as one of the players to be named later in the Steven Souza trade, and among him, Diego Castillo and Ian Gibaut, their future bullpen could be awfully good.

Zac Law, C, Tampa Bay (High-A): So. Many. Rays. It’s the most underrated prospect crop in baseball, and with graduations in other organizations, Tampa Bay is a top 5 system – maybe higher. Willy Adames is going to be a star. Jesus Sanchez, one scout said, might win a batting title someday. Brendan McKay is doing the Shohei Ohtani thing and has a 64-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a pitcher and 25 to 36 as a hitter. Genesis Cabrera is going to be a big league starter and might be a good one. And then there are the Law types. The Rays converted him from outfield to catcher in 2017, and he has more than taken to it. The arm is excellent, the receiving better than expected and the bat plenty playable. Great farm systems are built on the backs of guys like the 21-year-old Law.

Miguel Amaya, C, Chicago Cubs (Low-A): One scout said he’s the best player in the Midwest League. Another said he’s one of the five best catching prospects in baseball. For an organization in need of a talent infusion, Amaya and Jhonny Pereda, his High-A counterpart, provide a big boost. Amaya’s defense is superlative, and after a couple years of struggles with the bat, his power has unlocked this year. For a kid young enough to have braces – he’s 19 – that’s a very, very good sign.

Zack Collins, C, Chicago White Sox (Double-A): Maybe Collins sticks at catcher. Maybe he doesn’t. Either way, the bat is going to play, and the idea of seeing him hitting second in the White Sox’s lineup once their full complement of prospects ascend is awfully appealing. Because his on-base skills are glorious: Collins is hitting .276/.445/.476 this year while splitting time between catcher and DH. The White Sox hope he’s the former. They’ll still take the latter.

M.J. Melendez, C, Kansas City (Low-A): A second-round pick out of the Miami area last year, the 19-year-old Melendez is part of the Lexington team giving the Royals hope during their rebuild. He’s a toolsy catcher with pop. Outfielder Seuly Matias, also 19, leads the minor leagues with 18 home runs. Nick Pratto, 19 as well, was the first-round pick last year and projects well but could improve his plate discipline. The best of them all may be Khalil Lee, an athletic center fielder who has a .424 on-base percentage at High-A. And, yes, of course: He’s 19, too.

Brady Singer, SP, Kansas City (Drafted): The first of five college pitchers chosen by the Royals on Day 1 of the draft, Singer was expected to go in the top 10 and fell into Kansas City’s lap at 18th. He’s got a mid-90s fastball, a swing-and-miss breaking ball and a 80-grade potty mouth.

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The Royals took flak for going with college pitchers in the middle of a rebuild, but there is a perfectly reasonable explanation: Their tremendous whiffs on prep arms in recent years. Whether it’s a scouting issue or a development problem, the Royals have not done well turning high school arms into impact pros. This is an organization being reflective, honest with itself and adjusting. Developing pitchers is vital for low-revenue organizations that don’t want to pay for it in free agency, and with that in mind, Kansas City’s direction makes sense. Maybe not five in a row, but again: Pitching prospects fail regularly, and it takes depth to protect against the downside.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize is an opening day-type starter with a higher ceiling. (AP)
Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize is an opening day-type starter with a higher ceiling. (AP)

Casey Mize, SP, Detroit (Drafted): With Mize, the Tigers saw the least downside in the draft. He is polished. His stuff – a hard fastball and evil splitter – is elite. Most teams had him on the top of their draft boards, even with fear of his arm health. He’s an opening day-type starter with a higher ceiling – the sort whose name appears annually on the Cy Young tally.

Griffin Canning, SP, Los Angeles Angels, (Double-A): Teams are kicking themselves for letting Canning slide to the second round, where the Angels grabbed him to complete an incredibly productive first two rounds, with Jo Adell – who’s already at High-A and only turned 19 in April – taken in the first. Canning’s fastball is up to 97, according to scouts, and he has a 1.21 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings between Double-A and High-A. Much credit goes to Angels GM Billy Eppler and scouting director Matt Swanson, a rising star in the industry, as they’ve taken a farm system that was perhaps the worst in the big leagues and infused it with talent. Scouts are raving about the arms they signed in Latin America who will be in short-season ball this year.

Gavin Lux, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers (High-A): A first-round pick from Wisconsin, he has added strength and has scouts believing his breakout is no Cal League mirage. Certainly playing in Rancho Cucamonga can’t hurt, but the 20-year-old Lux already has more home runs this year than his previous two seasons combined, and a .313/.395/.529 line for a shortstop will play anywhere.

Yusniel Diaz, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (Double-A): The Dodgers spent more than $20 million to sign Diaz out of Cuba in 2015, and his breakout in 2017 is being validated with a .311/.431/.513 line at Tulsa. A right fielder with excellent bat-to-ball skills – he’s got 24 walks and 23 strikeouts – Diaz’s speed is above average and his power growing. He’s not far from the big leagues and is a better prospect than most realize.

Tirso Ornelas, OF, San Diego (Low-A): For all the fervor over players being born in 2000 going in the draft this year, they’re already all over the Padres’ full-season teams. Ornelas, 18, is one of three on Fort Wayne’s roster. Signed for $1.5 million out of Mexico, he’s got well-above-average power, and while a move to first base could be in the offing, scouts believe the bat will play there.

Alex Kirilloff, OF, Minnesota (Low-A): After missing last season with Tommy John surgery, Kiriloff, the Twins’ first-round pick in 2016, has looked like one of the best bats in the minor leagues and is working his way into top 100 prospect consideration. He’s got the power to stay in a corner and has been perhaps the best hitter in the Midwest League, slashing .327/.386/.592. The Twins want to take it slowly with him. He may force them to consider otherwise.

Cal Mitchell, OF, Pittsburgh (Low-A): A poor spring in 2017 dropped Mitchell out of first-round consideration, and the Pirates gladly snapped him up in the second round. In an organization without a ton of high-ceiling everyday prospects, Mitchell may have the most upside, and he’s showing it with a .327/.384/.540 line. The Pirates are plenty stocked with corner outfielders – Austin Meadows, Gregory Polanco, Corey Dickerson – so Mitchell’s ascent could be slow, which is fine. He’s still just 19.

Myles Straw, OF, Houston (Double-A): Never is Straw going to be a power hitter of note. In 1,250 minor league at-bats, he has hit two home runs. That’s fine. His other skills are good enough to get him to the big leagues. He’s hitting .344. He has more walks (35) than strikeouts (34). And his 34 steals lead the minor leagues, an impressive feat made more so by his 85 percent success rate on steals. Not bad for a 23-year-old taken by the Astros in the 12th round three years ago.

Gareth Morgan, CF, Seattle (High-A): Morgan made it 50 for 50 on Wednesday – 50 games played this season, 50 games with at least one strikeout. If there is a minor league who personifies this era of baseball, it might be the 22-year-old Morgan. In 182 at-bats this season, he has struck out 118 times. Yes, 64.8 percent of his at-bats have ended with punchouts. His streak is actually 56 games, if you count last season. Morgan’s last game without a strikeout: Aug. 28, 2017, against Wisconsin in the Midwest League. When Morgan does make contact, it’s a glorious thing; despite all the Ks, he’s still slugging .374 and has 11 home runs.

Jonathan Hernandez, SP, Texas (High-A): The son of Fernando Hernandez, a cup-of-coffee big leaguer who played in Korea and Mexico as well, the 21-year-old Hernandez has dominated the Carolina League and could be in Double-A soon. He’s always had a big fastball. His breaking ball has taken a step forward, according to scouts, and with 77 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings, he has taken the step forward a pitching-poor organization like Texas needed.

Michael Kopech’s biggest issue, according to one scout, is off-speed pitches. (AP)
Michael Kopech’s biggest issue, according to one scout, is off-speed pitches. (AP)

Michael Kopech, SP, Chicago White Sox (Triple-A): Twice in his last five starts, Kopech has gotten lit up, and more than one scout has wondered if he’s bored biding his time before he arrives in the big leagues. The biggest issue, according to one scout, is Kopech’s off-speed pitches. He’s not throwing them for strikes, and it has allowed hitters to sit fastball. And while that fastball sizzles in at 96-97 regularly and has helped him accumulate 70 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings, Kopech can’t subsist solely on one pitch. There’s room to grow, and seeing as how bad the White Sox are, there’s no rush to bring the 22-year-old to Chicago.

James Karinchak, RP, Cleveland (High-A): Part of what makes the Indians such a good organization is their ability to develop pitching, and Karinchak is a perfect example. A ninth-round pick out of Bryant College last year – two rounds after Eli Morgan, another ascendant pitcher at High-A – Karinchak is a two-pitch, swing-and-miss right-handed reliever, with a mid-90s fastball and power curveball. In 20 1/3 innings this season, he has struck out 35 and allowed just one run.

Peter Alonso, 1B, New York Mets (Double-A): There’s not much depth in the Mets’ system, so the breakout of Alonso has been more than welcome. The power is great and all – and it’s very real. His patience excites Mets development people even more. Alonso’s .453 on-base percentage ranks ninth in all the minor leagues. He’s not a good first baseman and doesn’t project to be, but if you’re getting on base at that clip and slugging nearly .600 to boot, that’s a first-world problem.

Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego (Double-A): Scouts and player-development people are almost universal in their agreement that the best farm system in the game today belongs to the Padres. It’s as much about the depth and upside as it is present-day excellence, though players like Tatis combine the now and future. In April, he looked overwhelmed, a 19-year-old struggling at Double-A. Then he slashed .336/.414/.639 in May. And in five June games, he’s at .444/.474/.500. Should Toronto summon Guerrero, Tatis is in line to be the No. 1 prospect in baseball going into 2019.

Garrett Whitlock, SP, New York Yankees (High-A): Another great arm in a system full of them, Whitlock has a fastball that runs up to 96, a plus slider and command of both. Even better, said one scout, is Whitlock’s attitude: He pitches with a mean streak, which, at 6-foot-5, makes him all the more intimidating. In 10 starts between Low-A and High-A, Whitlock has a 1.01 ERA and 62 strikeouts against 11 walks over 53 2/3 innings. Not bad for an 18th-round pick last year out of Alabama-Birmingham.

Cristian Javier, SP, Houston (Low-A): On fastball alone, Javier looks ordinary, a right-hander who sits 89 to 93 mph. Then he unleashes his curveball and slider and changeup, all of which flash plus on the right day, and you get what he’s done: 74 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings. It’s typical for the Astros’ organization, which at every level from Low-A to the major leagues is averaging an incredible 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings. Whatever the criticisms of the Astros as an organization may be, it’s undeniable that they know how to develop pitching.

Sixto Sanchez, SP, Philadelphia (High-A): Sanchez isn’t much to behold physically at 6-foot, 185 pounds. Put a baseball in his right hand and the magic begins. Sanchez regularly hits 100 mph with his fastball, and his curveball and changeup are above-average pitches, too. “The next Yordano Ventura,” one scout opined. That may be selling him short. With Forrest Whitley out following a PED suspension, Kopech running into issues, Brent Honeywell undergoing Tommy John surgery, Hunter Greene facing some ups and downs and Mitch Keller looking very good but not dominant like Sanchez, there’s an argument to be made that Sixto is the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues.

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