Ross Atkins: ‘I just don’t see [Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.] as a major league player.’

Spring training has begun. That means it’s time for team executives to do their annual song-and-dance, which is to get in front of a microphone and disingenuously make up reasons why their top prospects won’t be major league-ready until just after their clubs secure an extra year of contractual control. We saw it most strikingly with Kris Bryant back in 2015, but it happens every year with the latest crop of can’t-miss prospects across the league.

Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is currently baseball’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs. The son of a Hall of Famer, Guerrero put up incredible numbers in the minors last year with Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, batting .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 408 plate appearances. Guerrero really has nothing left to prove in the minors. The Blue Jays, currently slated to start Brandon Drury at third base, would be a better and more interesting team with Guerrero in the lineup on Opening Day. The Jays, however, lost 89 games last year and 86 games the year prior, and are currently not in the business of being “better” or “interesting.”

MLB Network Radio had Jays GM Ross Atkins on as a guest on Tuesday. Atkins, unsurprisingly, set the stage for Guerrero to open the season in the minors. The quote from the snippet MLB Network Radio provided:

Our vision, it really comes down to development. I just don’t see him as a major league player. Just pencil him in and it’s done. He’s 19. He has accomplished everything he can accomplish as an offensive player. There’s so many opportunities for him defensively and what he can do to really maximize the power and the size and the strength that he has. Everyone then points to defense, but it’s really not just about defense, it’s about him having a 15, 20-year career, starting with an incredible foundation. That’s everything that encompasses ‘teammate’ — the physical aspect, the baserunning, the defense. That physical aspect really plays into what type of offensive player he’s going to be. He has the ability to be so versatile and dynamic and we want to make sure we tap into all that potential.

We covered Bryant’s thoughts on service time manipulation last night. Despite putting up similarly awesome numbers in the minors in 2014 and having a torrid spring training showing ahead of the 2015 season, the Cubs cited Bryant’s defense as a reason to keep him in the minor leagues. Conveniently, once the Cubs secured that extra year of control, Bryant’s defense was no longer an issue. Bryant said, “I was told to work on my defense, too, and I think I got three ground balls in those games that I played” (in the minors to start the season before getting called up). Team representatives commonly cite defense because it’s still somewhat subjective, not as easy to quantify as offense. The defensive stats that are out there are not reliable, especially for minor leaguers. A team rep can just cite defense and hand-wave away the conversation.

In case there was any doubt what Atkins is up to, let us not forget that last year at Pitch Talks — a “touring, interactive baseball event” — he said, “When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about aging players and the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curves has come to an end across baseball.” Atkins, who worked under Chris Antonetti with the Indians for 15 years, is very well aware of what he is entrusted to do with the Blue Jays’ payroll. Speeding up Guerrero’s track to free agency is not on the agenda, no matter how good his numbers in the minor leagues are. The Blue Jays and Cubs aren’t a couple of stray offenders; every team manipulates their top prospects’ service time. It is clearly one issue (of many) that needs to be addressed during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement.