Has Vlad Jr.’s Time Come?

Seems like upto the news of Roberto Osuna being arrested this morning, the biggest topic of discussion for Blue Jays fans was if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was ready to be called up and make a splash in the Big Pool known as the MLB. Actually, from what I can gauge, the discussion might be more along the lines of “why haven’t Toronto already brought the kid up?”

It’s understandable. Guerrero is one of the top three “prospects” in the game and has been tearing it up in the minors this season. Not to mention that he shares a name with a soon-to-be Hall of Famer who happens to be his father. Junior was in headlines just days ago for hitting two monster homers in one game for AA New Hampshire. Not since two Ken Griffeys have a father and son combo shown so much talent. Not since – well, maybe ever- has a super-talent worked his way through the Blue Jays minor league system, hype surrounding the likes of Eric Hinske and JP Arencibia in days gone by notwithstanding. The big difference here is that Americans and scouts from other teams are raving about Vlad Jr.,not just Blue Jays press releases and Buck Martinez.

There is an argument to be made for promoting him now. He came off a gigantic season at lowly A-level ball last year (a .325 average, .910 OPS and more walks- 76- than strikeouts- 62, a decided rarity at any level these days) and has upped his game at the next level of play so far this spring. In AA, he’s leading the league with an eye-popping .398 average and 35 RBI in just 25 games. He’s got an unheard of OPS of 1.126. We’re talking Ted Williams numbers, Barry Bonds stats without steroids to boot. And, the argument continues, Toronto is playing decently but falling behind the hard-slugging Red Sox and Yankees by the week. A big power bat could level the playing field and current DH Kendrys Morales isn’t giving us that of late . Although he hit two homers in one game in Minnesota last week and has been on the rise in the last couple of weeks, his .152 average, 3 homers and 10 RBI are quite embarassing for a full-time player…and one who’s sluggish as well, negating any possible advantage of speed from his slot in the lineup.

So, case closed- get him on the first Greyhound out of New England to Toronto, right? Well… not so fast.

The first major flaw in the thinking is that AA numbers are going to be reflected at the major league level. Wrong. Vlad isn’t going up against Justin Verlander or Corey Kluber down there, he’s going against a lot of other 19 year old pitchers who likely have only a workable fastball. Statistically, many of them aren’t ever going to make it to the majors. A 500-foot moonshot homer is a 500-foot moonshot, but knocking one off a sub-par 90 MPH fastball is going to be easier than off a savvy pro with a 100 MPH heater and a great curve and slider added in to the mix. Not to mention, at only 25 games in, most of the pitchers are only seeing Vlad for the first time. Let’s wait and see if they adjust and get him out more often when they see him the second, third time through, around June or July before deciding he’s a legitimate threat to hit .400 or drive in more than a run a game. there’s a reason the minor league process has three levels and takes most players, even good ones, three years to advance through.

Second there’s the whole other half of the game to take into account. Guerrero is flat out the most exciting, impressive hitter in his league. However, he also spends half the game playing third base, and few suggest he’s as gifted at that as he is in hitting. In fact the team’s own report on him suggest he has “below average speed and range” (they do compliment his throwing arm I must add) and saying he may not even be suitable for the position long-range. Sounds like even if he could come close to matching his hitting success in the Bigs, he’s not going to displace Josh Donaldson from third this year. Which leaves DH, but there are questions about that as well.

First among them is do we really want to consign a kid in his teen years to that role? DH’s are usually over-the-hill in baseball years, unable to do anything but hit. Think of the great ones of late, and you think players of advancing years. David Ortiz, Nelson Cruz… or back to the Jays glory years and Paul Molitor’s last hurrah. You don’t think of a young kid making his mark on the game. If Guerrero is already sub-par defensively, one would assume he needs all the work he can get on that part of the game so he will have a viable future playing it down the road…not to be assigned to lots of sitting on the bench.

For a frame of reference, I took a look at the last three Superstar-upon-arrival position players to make their mark – Mike Trout, Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper. That’s a pretty lofty group of players and might be unfair to Vlad to expect him to live upto that kind of pressure, although early indications are that he will be the same sort of “impact player.”

Guerrero is only two months past his 19th birthday. Harper and Trout both debuted in the majors at age 19 as well… but Harper was 19 and 6 months, Trout just days short of his 20th birthday. Ol’ Man Bryant didn’t hit the “show” until well past 23. For 30 year old veterans, a few months is nothing. For a teenager, four or five months can equal a lot of development!

Of those three, only Harper was rushed to the big leagues. He had just 130 minor league games under his young belt before showing up in Washington- still a few more than Vlad has. He’d started 2011 at A-ball, got upto AA for the final 37 of that year and spent only a couple of weeks at AAA in 2012 before getting the call. Curiously, of the trio, his minors numbers were least impressive- at AA he hit .256 with 3 homers and a .724 OPS in the 37 games; from there his numbers dipped in a small sample of 21 games at AAA. The Nats obviously saw something in him and rushed him through, and he’s shown he was upto the task since. However, his rookie year of 2012 didn’t set the world on fire. In 139 games, he hit .270, had 22 HR and a .477 slugging percentage. Since that time, it’s been sort of up and down for him, but he’s shown a general improvement, so that last year before he messed up his knee, he was in line for arguably his best year, a .319 average, 29 HR, 87 RBI and excellent 1.008 OPS through 111 games.

Trout made his debut at 19 as well, but after spending almost a full year at AA and 20 games at AAA at the beginning of 2012, his first full season in MLB. His AA numbers were eye-catching- .326/11/38 with 33 stolen bases and a .958 OPS. He hit over .400 in the short stint at AAA the following year, making his call up from the Angels a no-brainer. So, yes, looks like Guerrero’s even better than Trout at AA, minus the speed on the bases. But… let’s recall that when he was called up mid-2011 by the big league squad, he looked ordinary. Yes, he clipped a .326 average and 30 homers, 49 steals in 2012… but in his six weeks in 2011 at the bigs, he was an anemic .220 with 5 homers and a weak .672 OPS.

In some ways, Kris Bryant is most like Vlad- a big third baseman. He flew through both AA and AAA in 2014, playing 68 games at the former and 70 at the latter. His AA numbers looked Guerrero-like: .355/21/52, 1.160 OPS. He fell off to a decent enough .295/21/52 at AAA and earned a promotion to Chicago April of the next year. That year he hit .275 with an .858 OPS. The big difference however, is that he was four years older than Guerrero at that point in his career.

In short, there’s little question Guerrero could hit major league pitching without embarassing himself. There also seems little precedent to suggest he’d match his AA numbers any time soon, though. A .398 average, 35 RBI in 25 games and 1.126 OPs could very easily drift down into ordinary enough .260, 60 RBI in 130 game, .800 OPS numbers after four or five months of nothing but major league pitching to work on. And his defensive skills, already average at best, would likely suffer from atrophy.

That’s not even considering whether he’s mature enough to handle the spotlight, the intense pressure he’ll feel from the media and crowds at the MLB level. He’ll get standing O’s for the first few games, and every time he knocks one into the upper deck. But those could soon turn to boos if he slips into say, an 0 for 15 stretch, which many veteran stars do , let alone rookies. Guerrero seems level-headed and mature for his age, but as Osuna has given us yet more evidence of today, handing young men tons of money and fame isn’t always a great mix. It’s a lot to ask of a grown man, sometimes unbearable for a kid who under normal circumstances would probably be just out of his high school prom.

My take on it: make a quick decision about whether he will ever be a “plus” third baseman. If the answer is no, move him to left or first quickly, let him get a few dozen games at a new position under his belt and see how he does. If he continues to rip apart AA hitting by late-June bring him upto AAA Buffalo, let him finish out the year there, possibly bringing him to Toronto as a September callup if his AAA numbers are solid and he doesn’t seem too worn out by the relatively long season.

I’d only bring him to the Jays earlier if A) his numbers continue to be earth-shattering in the minors, B) Kendrys Morales either doesn’t improve from his current lacklustre numbers (which might mean biting the bullet and paying him the close to $20M left on his contract to walk away) by say Canada Day or is on the 60-day DL, or worse yet if Donaldson was thereby opening up 3B for takers and C) if it appears that Toronto was still a reasonable playoff contender at that point.

Unfortunately, with today’s events and Osuna looking at at least a 15 game suspension for domestic abuse, the rock-solid bullpen looks more questionable, holding those late-inning leads less certain in the near future and ultimately, item “C” above less likely.

Vlad Guerrrero Jr. for 2019 Rookie of the Year,anyone?