DUNEDIN, Fla. — It is difficult to describe the breathtaking majesty of the blast off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. just before 1 p.m. Thursday on a back field at the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training facility. But it was into a steady wind, to straightaway center field, seemingly still rising as it struck near the top of the black, mesh “batter’s eye” above the wall, some 30 or so feet off the ground. If 20 people witnessed it, then 20 people simultaneously formed the word “wow” with their mouths.
If that doesn’t do it justice, perhaps this will: A Blue Jays employee happened to be aiming a radar-tracking device toward the plate and holding a monitor displaying exit velocities during this batting practice session. And when the session ended, that employee relayed the speed off the bat of that particular blast: 118 mph.
And if that still doesn’t drive home the point, perhaps this will: In the entire 2018 Major League Baseball regular season, only two home runs, both of them by the New York Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, were struck at a higher exit velocity than the ball Guerrero hit Thursday off a batting-practice pitcher lobbing 60 mph fastballs.
The singular talent of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to hit baseballs harder and more consistently than practically any human being currently walking the earth — with the possible exception of his father and namesake, the Hall of Fame outfielder — is best experienced up close, from behind a batting cage on a warm spring day in Florida. That talent is the reason Guerrero is, less than a month shy of his 20th birthday, the consensus top prospect in baseball — a third baseman with “the ceiling of a perennial MVP candidate,” according to MLB Pipeline.
“The hype,” said Blue Jays shortstop prospect Bo Bichette, another consensus top-20 prospect, who has come through the minor leagues with Guerrero and thus has perhaps seen more of his professional at-bats than anyone, “is real.”
Your first time seeing Guerrero hit typically gets seared into your memory.
“I remember it,” Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar said. “Last spring, he gets brought up for a game in Bradenton [against the Pittsburgh Pirates]. He’s probably hitting sixth or seventh in the lineup. The pitcher was kind of carving us up. But he hits this low line drive off the left field wall. It was loud. It was just the way he was able to watch the hitters before, kind of diagnose what the pitcher was doing. It just seems like, for his age, he’s a little more mature as far as his approach and the way he’s able to watch a game and make adjustments from pitch to pitch.”
But if the best way to experience Guerrero is up close, the worst way (aside from having to pitch to him, of course) is through the lens of baseball’s antiquated, repressive service-time rules — which, unfortunately, is how much of the greater baseball community is experiencing Guerrero these days.
As fans in Toronto and far beyond know by now, the Blue Jays failed to bring Guerrero to the majors in 2018, even after he hit .402 with a 1.120 on-base-plus-slugging percentage for Class AA New Hampshire, then went to Class AAA Buffalo and hit .336 with a .978 OPS.
And despite the fact he would probably be the Blue Jays’ best hitter from the first day of the 2019 season — Fangraph’s “Steamer” projection algorithm has him being worth 4.7 wins above replacement (WAR) this year, one spot below Nolan Arenado and one above Aaron Judge — they will almost certainly return him to Buffalo at the end of spring and keep him there for somewhere around 15 days.
Why 15 days? Because that is how long, by rule, the Blue Jays must keep Guerrero in the minors to delay his free agency by a full year — essentially guaranteeing themselves a seventh year of his big league services. The rule is unfair to Guerrero and every Blue Jays player and fan.
It’s also unfair, in a sense, to Ross Atkins, the Blue Jays’ general manager, who must stand in front of cameras and invent reasons it might be prudent to start Guerrero back in the minors — when Guerrero has already dominated there — while, in truth, given the rules that are in place, it would amount to malpractice, as the top baseball executive of a mid-revenue team, for him to bring Guerrero to the majors on Opening Day and cost the Blue Jays the extra year of his services.
“We want to make sure he’s the best possible third baseman [and] best possible hitter he can be,” Atkins told reporters in a news conference at the start of camp.
In the present labor atmosphere — which, owing largely to the stagnation of the past two free agent markets, is as acrimonious as at any point since the 1994-95 players’ strike — the manipulation of service time, to essentially delay a player’s free agency, is just one more flash point. It isn’t only the Blue Jays. In recent years, the Chicago Cubs did it with Kris Bryant, and the Atlanta Braves with Ronald Acuna Jr.
“Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other great young talents around baseball have earned the right to play on the field for a major league team,” the union said in a statement. “The decision not to bring him up is a business decision, not a baseball decision. It's bad for the Blue Jays, it's bad for fans, it's bad for players and it's bad for the industry.”
Atkins acknowledged the tense labor atmosphere “no doubt influences the way fans are thinking about the decision-making and how the players are thinking about the decision-making.”
Guerrero has publicly brushed off the concerns, telling reporters through a translator, “That’s their decision, and my only job is to come here, get better, work hard and be ready.”
The Blue Jays have already built a strong support system around their budding superstar. His locker this spring puts him in a row with older Latin players, anchored by veteran designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who played with Vladimir Sr. in Anaheim. The Blue Jays’ rookie manager, Charlie Montoyo, mentored the elder Guerrero when they played together in the Montreal Expos’ farm system. When asked who was the best young player, aside from Guerrero Jr., he’d ever been around, Montoyo, 53, replied, “His dad.”
At batting practice Thursday, the younger Guerrero wore a semi-permanent smile below his signature blond-tipped hair. Otherwise, he would not have stood out — he is listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, but a Blue Jays official said he is closer to 240 — until he stepped into the batter’s box.
“What jumps out at you,” Atkins said, “is how consistently he hits the ball square, at just the right point of his swing.”
It was one of those squared-up swings, at just the right point, that produced the line drive off the batter’s eye, the home run that would have been the third-hardest-hit in baseball in 2018.
The Guerrero Era is coming — circle April 12, the 16th day of the major league season, on your calendar — and when it does, it’s going to be something to behold.