CHICAGO — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. belongs here. That much is evident before he even takes the field. From the way he casually walks into the clubhouse and interacts with teammates to his unflappable disposition when confronted by hordes of media to the confidence he displays wearing “Vladdy” socks to honor his father, Guerrero is unfazed by all of this.
Perhaps that should be expected. Guerrero grew up around the game. Thanks to his dad — Hall of Fame outfielder Vladimir Guerrero — Vlad Jr. has been in clubhouses since he was 3 and already has relationships with the game’s biggest stars. Albert Pujols doesn’t give hitting advice to every 20-year-old rookie who makes it to the majors. That’s reserved for the ones who are going to be special.
Guerrero is also wise enough to know that advice wasn’t meant to be shared.
By all accounts, Guerrero is special. The most hyped prospect in recent memory hasn’t exploded onto the scene — he’s hitting just .207 in his first 16 games in the majors — but his two home-run game against the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday gave fans a glimpse at why Guerrero was considered the consensus No. 1 overall prospect coming into the season.
While the early returns haven’t been perfect, Guerrero isn’t sweating his numbers.
“I think I’m doing very good,” Guerrero said. “I’m enjoying every moment. Every at-bat. Every game. Everywhere I go. So far, I’m enjoying everything.”
There’s a reason Guerrero was the only prospect to receive an overall 80-grade — the highest grade possible — from Baseball America. That grade isn’t given out lightly, and certainly not to someone you give up on after just 58 at-bats.Ignore those small-sample struggles, Guerrero is about as close to a sure thing as it gets.
Blue Jays have their star
All of this is tremendous news for the Toronto Blue Jays. After postseason appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays are in rebuild mode. José Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion are long gone. It’s up to the next batch of stars to lead them back to glory.
Having a legitimate superstar in Guerrero gets them much closer to that reality. And while the impact of a superstar in baseball isn’t as significant as it might be in other sports, having one of the best young hitters in baseball gives the Blue Jays a major advantage over every other rebuilding club.
Given his immense talent, Guerrero making it to the majors was always going to be the easiest part of this rebuild. For the Blue Jays, the hard part starts now.
Being aggressive on the free-agent market
The advantage of having an elite talent like Guerrero means nothing if the Blue Jays don’t surround him with other standout players. The simplest — and most effective — way to do that involves spending money on the free-agent market.
The team didn’t do a lot of that this offseason, as shortstop Freddy Galvis — who signed a one-year, $4 million deal — was their biggest free-agent expenditure. Over the past couple seasons, the team’s payroll has decreased substantially. The Blue Jays came into 2017 with a $175 million payroll on opening day, which ranked seventh in Major League Baseball. In 2019, they ranked 22nd with a $115 million payroll.
The team’s lack of spending may be a product of the rebuild. The Blue Jays know they’ll be bad now, so it doesn’t make sense to sign big-name players in the offseason. Perhaps they intend to reach their former payroll heights by the time they believe the Blue Jays are ready to compete again.
As the White Sox showed during the offseason, that plan doesn’t always work out as expected. The White Sox courted both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper during the offseason, but weren’t willing to spend what was necessary to land either player. The San Diego Padres did it better. The team is on the rise after striking a year early to bring in Machado on a 10-year, $300 million deal. If they don’t make the postseason in 2019, the Padres have put themselves in much better position to make the playoffs in 2020.
When the Blue Jays are presented with the same opportunity, they have to be more like the Padres. Or better yet, the Chicago Cubs, who spent massive amounts of money on Jon Lester and Jason Heyward and wound up winning the World Series.
Making shrewd trades and using the farm system
As Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels can attest, spending on the free-agent market doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot. The Angels have added significant players on the market to pair with Trout, including Josh Hamilton, Pujols and CJ Wilson. The team has only made the postseason once during Trout’s career.
The Angels’ failure can be placed on the team’s inability to develop other useful prospects to add to their core. As recently as 2016, a least one prospect analyst called the Angels’ farm system the worst he’s ever seen.
The Blue Jays are in much better position as far as that’s concerned. The team has the third best farm system in the game, according to Baseball America. Turning two or three of those prospects into impact players will help immensely.
But in the instance where those prospects don’t live up to expectations. All hope is not lost. The Blue Jays can always go the Houston Astros route and rely on smart scouting and analytics to identify players whose potential they could unlock. The Astros not only got high-pedigree players like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole back on track, they also took unwanted guys like Charlie Morton and Robinson Chirinos and turned them into above-average pieces.
The perfect balance
Rebuilding isn’t easy. Even if Guerrero gives them a head start, the Blue Jays have a lot of work to do if they want to be perennial contenders.
Despite Guerrero’s early struggles, he’s going to hit soon. The talent and the expectations are too much to ignore.
Until then, the Blue Jays deserve credit for getting Guerrero where he belongs. When the time comes that Guerrero proves he deserves to be on an even bigger stage, the Blue Jays will have to do everything possible to give him that opportunity.
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