As he was rocketing towards the big leagues as the Blue Jays top-rated prospect, Vlad Guerrero Jr. was virtually undisputed as the team’s third baseman of the future.
A strong arm, decent hands and a big bat to finish off the package made the Vlad hype seem almost too good to be true. Perhaps it was.
Following a regression in 2020 primarily related to a serious lapse in his fitness, Guerrero is determined to win back his spot at the hot corner. The much noted 40-plus pounds he has shed in the off-season has him back in the mix and good on the 21-year-old for that.
But if Guerrero is expecting his favoured defensive spot to be handed back to him, he may have to think again. Ross Atkins is thrilled with what may end up being the best off-season of Guerrero’s young career, but on Wednesday the Blue Jays’ general manager cautioned that there is plenty of winter remaining.
“(Guerrero’s position) is something we talk about every day and we’re going to use every day to factor in his progress as we make those decisions,” Atkins said on a media Zoom call prior to next week’s virtual winter meetings. “Whether that ends up a door being left open or a door cracked open will be determined by each day of his off-season and what opportunities present themselves.”
There’s plenty to be read into Atkins rather pointed lines, especially as off-season activity begins to heat up over the coming days. At the top of the list of Atkins’ rather emphatic goals for the winter is to improve defensively and if an infielder adept at third emerges, the sense is the Jays won’t hesitate to move on the opportunity.
That’s not to say they’ve given up on Guerrero’s potential at third, but they’re no longer willing to live with his defence be a liability.
Still, the fact that Guerrero has taken ownership of his condition by dropping some 40 pounds since August has at least moved him back in the mix for third. And if the native of the Dominican Republic can flash the form and fitness he did back in the summer of 2018 when he was toiling for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, his chances to win back third will improve significantly.
“It’s just because of his arms and his hands,” Atkins said when asked how Guerrero can be successful at his original position. “If he’s coming in at the overall body (composition) and weight and agility he was in Double A, it’s realistic to think of him being an impact player at third base.
“Limiting a 21-year-old doesn’t seem like the best thing to do.”
As for Guerrero’s struggle across the diamond last season, it was clear that his weight — which peaked at a reported 280 pounds — was a liability. As the season went on and he dropped pounds, he was modestly more comfortable. Atkins figures he will grow from that experience at a spot that could still be his future.
“That was a lot to ask of him last year and I think the experience will be helpful if that’s where he ends up playing,” Atkins said. “It’s not just experience, though. So much of it is athleticism and confidence to put your body in good positions. To have the agility to be prepared to move in different directions.”
For now, however, the Jays will keep their options wide open and continue to monitor Guerrero’s progress, including his plans to sharpen his third-base skills playing winter league ball in the Dominican.
“I’d just rather have every single piece of information before we decide how open or shut that door is at third base,” Atkins said.
The Jays have long valued Teoscar Hernandez as a potential impact player and a fit with the other young stars on the roster. The strides the right-fielder showed in the abbreviated 2020 campaign only confirmed those expectations.
Following a 16-homer season — tied for fifth-most in the AL — Hernandez on Wednesday was named both the Jays’ player of the year and most improved in voting by the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“We’ve always seen (Hernandez) as a player that has as much raw power as anyone on our team,” Atkins said. “We talked about his raw power being as good as Vladdy’s in batting practice and now we’ve seen it play out in games.
“He has above-average running speed. He has an above-average arm. And he’s refined his approach to the point where he looks much more comfortable and consistent as an offensive player.”
Other awards announced Wednesday were reliever Jordan Romano as the Jays rookie of the year and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the unanimous choice as pitcher of the year.
The John Cerutti Award named in honour of the former Jay and awarded to someone with the team who displays goodwill, co-operation and character, was awarded to former outfielder Anthony Alford and long-time Jays radio personality Mike Wilner, who was let go by Rogers last week.
SHAW, COLE NON-TENDERED
Figuring they can upgrade at the corner infield positions, the Jays non-tendered Travis Shaw, who the team took a flyer on for the 2020 season. Also on the on-tender list was right-handed reliever AJ Cole.
Atkins said Cole remains of some interest as the team puts together its pitching roster for 2021.
“We made the tough decision to non tender AJ but remain interested and will consider him as an alternative for the remainder of the off-season.”