The last great hero of the Montreal Expos was Vladimir Guerrero, who’ll enter the Hall of Fame this year. Guerrero, the first big leaguer ever to be named Vladimir, was an eye-popping talent. In 15 full seasons he never batted lower than .290; he posted eight 30-homer seasons, including two 30-homer, 30-steal seasons. In 2002 he came within a single homer of going 40–40, a barrier broken only four times in MLB history. Guerrero posted 34.6 bWAR in 1,004 games with the Expos. He left for Anaheim after the 2003 season and the next year was named the AL MVP. The Expos themselves left town after the 2004 season.
But Vlad was beloved not for his production so much as his propensity to turn a mundane game into a circus. His throwing arm and hand-eye coordination were unmatched. I couldn’t tell you what he hit in his MVP season, but I could name numerous instances in which he sent the ball on a nonstop flight from right field to home plate.
He had the ability to make contact on any pitch, anywhere inside (or occasionally outside) the strike zone and hit it for power. Occasionally, he’d hit a pitch on the bounce, cricket style, and it’d always seem to work out.
Vlad was beloved because he was like a cross between Ichiro and Bo Jackson, with a little bit of Harlem Globetrotters mixed in — there’s no risk he wouldn’t take, on the bases, in the field, or at the plate, and he got away with it more often than you’d expect.
The Expos left Montreal more than a decade ago, but every preseason the Blue Jays come back to Montreal to play in front of a (usually) packed Olympic Stadium on the eve of the regular season. This past year, the last swing of that series belonged to Guerrero’s son, Vladimir Jr. Guerrero fils is occasionally known as “Vladito,” though there’s nothing diminutive about him. His father, at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, was powerful and broad-shouldered, but also rangy. Vladito is compact and wide-bodied at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds (and then some), with a rounder face. Vlad was an outfielder, while Vladito has played third base for the entirety of his American pro career.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ended the series in Montreal with a walk-off homer. He has his father’s swing.
Sometimes even reality is a little too on the nose.
Vladito was born in Montreal in 1999, on the eve of his father’s first All-Star campaign, but grew up mostly in the Dominican Republic. This allowed him to sign with the Blue Jays at age 16 for an eye-popping $3.9 million bonus. If he’d lived in Canada or the U.S., he’d have been subject to the draft. For their money, the Jays ended up with a stupendously talented young hitter.
One year after he signed, Guerrero hit .271/.359/.449 against rookie ball competition. Last year, he tore through two levels of A-ball, against players four years older than him on average, and hit .323/.425/.485. This past offseason, FanGraphs listed him as the third-best prospect in baseball, behind Shohei Ohtani and Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña. So did MLB.com. ESPN’s Keith Law, who did not consider Ohtani on account of his extensive NPB experience, had Guerrero second behind Acuña. Baseball Prospectus, by contrast, was relatively bearish on Vladito — it ranked him fourth, behind Ohtani, Acuña, and Gleyber Torres, who’s hitting .323/.385/.613 for the Yankees.
Two months into the season, Ohtani, Acuña, and Torres are all in the big leagues, and playing extremely well. But that was the expected developmental path: The 23-year-old Ohtani is his own special case, while the 21-year-old Torres and the 20-year-old Acuña both spent extensive time in Double-A and Triple-A last year. Vladito was thought to be less advanced: He ended last season in high A, put up a pedestrian .211/.276/.278 in winter ball, and only just turned 19 in mid-March. He was, and still is, only getting the hang of third base. So no matter how much Blue Jays fans frothed at the mouth over his powerful swing, famous name, and prodigious preseason home run, Vladito remained in the minors.
Here’s what he’s done in 42 games at Double-A, the lowest level from which a prospect might reasonably expect to get a call-up: He’s hitting .425/.479/.694, and he currently has the same number of doubles as strikeouts. They tell you not to scout the stat line, but “they” aren’t usually talking about a player who’s hitting, it bears repeating, .425/.479/.694 against players five years older than he is.
Two months into his Double-A career, Vladito is building a legend of his own. Each day brings new breathless reports of his Brasskysian exploits. On Sunday, he had four hits, the last of them another walk-off homer.
Two weeks earlier, Vladito interrupted a game of baseball with a spot of hotel bombardment.
Would you like to see another Vlad Jr. home run? Maybe one off the hotel? Here you go (his first multi-HR game in Double-A). 10-2 NH. pic.twitter.com/68gcGI5HrF— NH Fisher Cats (@FisherCats) May 8, 2018
We talk about the ball sounding different coming off certain players’ bats, and Guerrero is a great example. The hotel homer, for instance, sounds like God playing the claves. But if you watch this three-minute highlight reel from Baseball America, you’ll see that Guerrero’s bat can produce a variety of noises, from “log falling off a truck on the highway” to “hitting a paper shopping bag with a bullwhip.”
I could go on and on, but the big question at this point is this: Why isn’t Vladito in Toronto?
There are some reasons: For starters, the Blue Jays have a third baseman already, Josh Donaldson, in whom they’ve invested a great deal. The jump from high A to the big leagues is gigantic, particularly for position players, and no matter how well Guerrero has hit in the past two months, he’s had only two months in the high minors. Plus, he’s still a work in progress defensively. I know the Cubs used that excuse to keep Kris Bryant in the minors for service-time reasons in 2015, and it was horseshit then, but it’s a legitimate concern with Guerrero. Finally, though it’s easy to forget when you look at him, he just turned 19. The top college position player in this year’s draft class, Georgia Tech catcher Joey Bart, is more than two years older than Guerrero.
On the other hand, screw all that. The Blue Jays might benefit from holding Guerrero down to delay his free agency by a year, but that’d require keeping him in the minors for another 11 months. If they do that and he keeps slugging .700, we’re going to have riots. Toronto could keep Vladito from reaching Super Two arbitration status by holding him down another month or so, but the time has probably come to stop applauding teams for pulling a stunt like that. If they call Guerrero up now, the worst thing that can happen is the Blue Jays have to pay him what he’s actually worth at some point in the mid-2020s. Applauding teams for pulling a stunt like that is like applauding a restaurant for charging you extra for silverware.
The question the Blue Jays ought to be asking is, “Can he help the team now without damaging his long-term future?” Donaldson is holding down third base, but he’s also been dealing with a shoulder injury that’s affected his throwing and, judging by his .225/.319/.433 in 31 games, possibly his hitting as well. Besides, Donaldson, a 32-year-old free-agent-to-be, might not be around for long. Until then, Vladito can slide in at DH. Toronto’s designated hitters, led by Kendrys Morales, have a .659 OPS this year — one Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, Zack Greinke, has done better at the plate, and another, Patrick Corbin, isn’t far behind.
Would DHing full time, or splitting time at third with Donaldson, cost Guerrero reps that limit his overall upside? Probably, but Guerrero’s bat plays anywhere on the diamond — he is, once again, hitting .425/.479/.694 in Double-A. And because he’s only 19 and is already built like Brian Urlacher, Vladito might not be able to play third base once he fills out. His bat is so special that it’d be unwise to wait around for the glove to catch up, because in five years he might be a first baseman or left fielder anyway.
Few hitters make the jump from A-ball to MLB as quickly as Guerrero would have to, but one of the exceptions is another big Dominican third baseman with prodigious power and a freakishly low strikeout rate: Albert Pujols. And Pujols was playing mostly left field by the middle of his age-22 season.
There are arguments for denying the public the Vladito it so ardently craves. They just aren’t good enough to be convincing.