Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been in the major leagues for about 15 minutes and is already a sensation. The traveling circus that followed him throughout the minor leagues has arrived in Toronto, where Blue Jays fans are popping and sizzling with excitement for the 20-year-old wunderkind.
On his first weekend in the big leagues, Vladito was feted at a Raptors playoff game and compared to Zion Williamson by teammate Marcus Stroman. Some Torontonians are even offering their infant children as tribute, as if Vladito were running for prime minister or Destroyer-God of the Volcanoes. Sky’s the limit for this kid, right? Maybe he grows up to hit 40 home runs a year, maybe he grows up to spin the molten core of the Earth in his mighty forge—it’s just too early to tell.
Vladito would be a fun player and fascinating story no matter where he played, but it’s very cool that he’s getting his first taste of big league action with the Blue Jays. Vladimir Guerrero père is a Canadian baseball legend, the last great star of the Montreal Expos before they moved to Washington 15 years ago, and while Guerrero fils was raised in the Dominican Republic, he was born in Montreal. Vladito was trained by his uncle Wilton, also a former Expo. The younger Guerrero’s first highlight in a big league uniform was a walk-off home run in a 2018 preseason game in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, and he arrived for his first regular-season MLB game dressed in his father’s Expos jersey. Some of the hype definitely comes from the fact he’s taking over the family business.
But it’s also the result of immense prospect hype. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the no. 1 prospect in baseball, it’s been said over and over, and it’s worth taking a moment to reckon with what that means. Prospect lists are useful sources of information, but they’re not precise enough to count as data. Any prediction about sports comes with caveats, and a prospect list is not only speculation, but also a subjective ranking. How do you rank a Triple-A pitcher who will almost certainly be a no. 4 starter in the big leagues—no more, no less—against an 18-year-old who might be a Hall of Famer if he learns to hit a breaking ball but won’t make it out of Double-A if he doesn’t? Most of the time, a player’s ordinal ranking is interesting, but the scouting report that accompanies the list is more instructive.
Baseball America has been publishing top-100 lists since 1990, when it declared Braves left-hander Steve Avery to be the OG top global prospect. But over the past decade, the internet has provided other outlets with the space to do their own prospect writing, and interest in minor leaguers’ potential has exploded. Prospect writers have gone from publishing their work online to actual big league scouting jobs, which provides an incentive for young would-be scouts to try their hand at it, and some former front-office analysts and scouts have gone back into the public sphere.
MLB.com and ESPN started publishing prospect lists, as have Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and particularly at the latter two sites, the democratization of prospect writing has allowed new voices to cultivate the training and sources to contribute meaningfully to public scouting knowledge. A public prospect analyst not only has to be a good scout, but a good writer, and both skill sets take lots of practice to hone. More recently, scouting has come to involve empirical data as well as the eye test. In short, there’s more and better information about minor league prospects now than there ever has been before.
So when a major publication says Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the best prospect in baseball, it means something, particularly when multiple sources come to the same conclusion. Here are the top prospects from five such publications—Baseball America, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and MLB.com—for 2019 and the 10 seasons prior. What kind of player does the no. 1 prospect in baseball usually end up becoming, and what does that mean for our expectations about Vladito?
2019: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (BA, BP, FanGraphs, MLB), Fernando Tatís Jr. (ESPN)
There was near-unanimity over the top prospect in baseball heading into this season. The only dissenting voice, ESPN’s Keith Law, doesn’t dissent by that much: None of the other sources ranked Tatís lower than third, and Law had Vladito second.
It’s obviously too early to say anything substantive about Vladito’s career—or Tatís’s, for that matter—but the rankings themselves are informative. The inputs that go into a ranking differ slightly but perceptibly from publication to publication: No two prospect writers have the same front-office sources, see the same games, hold the same methodological opinions, notice the same mechanical idiosyncrasies, or use exactly the same data. Yet four of them put Vladito at no. 1 overall, and the one that didn’t had him second. No matter how you look at Vladito, he should be really good.
2018: Ronald Acuña Jr. (BP, BA, ESPN), Shohei Ohtani (MLB, FanGraphs)
Ohtani is a unique case, not only as a two-way player but (at the time) someone with the professional track record to count as a veteran but the youth and athleticism to count as a prospect. BP and ESPN chose not to count him as a prospect, while Baseball America ranked him second behind Acuña.
So far, both of these players have panned out pretty well, as both won their respective leagues’ Rookie of the Year awards in 2018. Ohtani is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will return to the lineup soon and the rotation in 2020, while Acuña is a career .292/.374/.547 hitter who’d be playing center field if Ender Inciarte weren’t on his team, and is the highest-paid 21-year-old in baseball history. Both Ohtani and Acuña inspired similar industry-wide confidence as Vladito, and both have turned into instant superstars.
2017: Andrew Benintendi (BA, ESPN, MLB), Alex Reyes (BP), Yoán Moncada (FanGraphs)
Not all no. 1 prospects are created equal. At the time, Benintendi was a 22-year-old who’d hit in the SEC, the minors, and a brief big league cameo the previous season, but he was a little short of the speed necessary to be a plus defender in center and more of a doubles hitter than a home run hitter. In other words, Benintendi was a near lock to be a really good big league player, but without much superstar potential, and sure enough, that’s what he’s become: BP, Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs all rated him as about a four-win player last season, and he’s still only 24.
But BP chose Cardinals right-hander Reyes, who boasted an upper-90s fastball and excellent curve and looked every bit the future Cy Young winner if he could stay healthy and throw strikes. And, well, the day after BP’s top 100 ran, the Cardinals announced that Reyes would have Tommy John surgery and miss the season. Such is life for a top pitching prospect. Reyes returned in 2018 for one four-inning start before he suffered a season-ending torn tendon in his lat. Now, Reyes is on the IL once more; after getting knocked out of a start in Triple-A, he punched a wall and fractured his pinky finger, though the good news is he threw the punch with his non-throwing hand, just like Crash Davis said.
Moncada combined top-end power with top-end athleticism, but his hit tool was still a question mark—ESPN’s Keith Law rated him 17th that year. As of 2018, when Moncada led MLB in strikeouts, his hit tool hadn’t developed, but early returns in 2019 are better, as Moncada’s hitting .314/.374/.571. It’s also worth noting that even last year, Moncada was a two-win player.
2016: Corey Seager (BA, BP, ESPN, MLB)
FanGraphs didn’t publish a traditional top 100 in 2016, but the other four publications ranked Seager first. Seager produced 11.5 bWAR over the next two seasons, won Rookie of the Year and finished third in NL MVP voting in 2016, and made the All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger both years. He was hurt for most of 2018, but he was the kind of instant superstar Acuña and Ohtani would become.
2015: Kris Bryant (BA, ESPN, FanGraphs), Byron Buxton (BP, MLB)
Bryant was the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL MVP. Instant superstar. Buxton, on the other hand, has had a more complicated big league career.
2014: Byron Buxton (BA, BP, ESPN, FanGraphs, MLB)
Heading into the 2014 season at 20 years old, Buxton possessed god-tier athleticism and a more polished hitting approach than you’d expect from a player who’d come out of a Nowheresville, Georgia, high school. Despite his rail-thin stature, he absolutely mashed in the low minors, having hit .334/.424/.520 with 55 stolen bases in A-ball the year before. After the 2014 season, MLB.com invoked Mike Trout in its Buxton write-up. Law, a little more measured, compared him to a young Eric Davis and said he could be “a perennial MVP candidate for the Twins for years.” Which all sounded heady, even at the time, but what names would you drop on someone who could become the best defensive center fielder in baseball, while hitting .300 with patience and 20- or 30-home run power and 50 stolen bases a year? Willie Mays?
So where has it all gone wrong? Well, like Moncada, the last thing to fall into place for Buxton was his ability to make contact. Law praised Buxton’s command of the strike zone but said “his recognition of off-speed stuff lags a little behind,” while Jason Parks, then of Baseball Prospectus, who put an 80 overall future potential grade on Buxton, wrote that he “has struggled against plus breaking stuff.”
One of the major developmental hurdles for any young hitter is Double-A, where the quality of pitchers’ secondary offerings takes a leap. Buxton hadn’t yet surmounted that hurdle in 2014, and when he got there in August, he got hurt in an outfield collision in literally his first game. Since then, Buxton has struggled to stay healthy, suffering a broken toe in 2018 and numerous minor injuries from various collisions with the outfield wall, including one that forced him out of the 2017 wild-card game. And yet, he’s shown flashes of the ability that justified those glowing reports, most notably in the second half of 2017 and early this season, as he’s hitting .260/.313/.481 with 12 doubles and six stolen bases so far. He’s still only 25, and just too talented to write off.
2013: Jurickson Profar (BA, BP, ESPN, FanGraphs, MLB)
Profar struggled as a rookie in 2013, hitting just .234/.308/.336, before tendinitis in his throwing shoulder contributed to a partially torn labrum. He missed all of 2014 and played only 12 minor league games in 2015. Any hitter who misses essentially his entire age-21 and age-22 seasons will suffer gigantic developmental setbacks, but what happened to Profar goes beyond the normal “if he stays healthy” caveats for prospects—it was truly a nightmare scenario.
Even so, Profar was healthy and in the lineup every day for the first time in his career in 2018, and he posted a 106 OPS+ with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases while playing five different defensive positions. After almost losing his career to injury, Profar turned into a solid big leaguer.
2012: Bryce Harper (BA), Mike Trout (ESPN), Matt Moore (BP, FanGraphs, MLB)
The whole Matt Moore–is-as-good-a-prospect-as-Harper-and-Trout thing seemed a little weird at the time, and looks even weirder in retrospect. But while Moore has been bad, hurt, or both for much of his big league career, he was good for the Rays in 2012 and 2013, when he averaged 29 starts a year, struck out almost a batter per inning (back when that was impressive), and posted an ERA+ of 108. In 2013 he made the All-Star team and picked up a couple of down-ballot Cy Young votes. As recently as 2016, he made 33 starts with an ERA+ of 98 and was great in the playoffs for the Giants.
But pitching prospects are risky. Moore appeared atop three prospect lists in 2012, the same as all pitching prospects put together in the six years since. And two of those were Ohtani in 2018, and he’s only partially a pitcher.
2011: Bryce Harper (BA, BP), Mike Trout (ESPN, FanGraphs, MLB)
Trout fell out of the top spot on the FanGraphs and MLB.com lists between 2011 and 2012 because he was very bad in the majors (.220/.281/.390 in 40 games) and the Arizona Fall League (.245/.279/.321 in 25 games) in 2011. Nobody remembers this now, of course, because of how good Trout’s been since.
Harper went on to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2012 and the NL MVP in 2015, when he posted one of just four non-Trout, non–Barry Bonds 10 bWAR seasons since the 1994 strike. “Instant superstar” scarcely begins to tell the story for these two.
2010: Jason Heyward (BA, ESPN, FanGraphs, MLB), Stephen Strasburg (BP)
Both Heyward and Strasburg have had oddly disappointing careers. Heyward never duplicated the offensive numbers (.277/.393/.456) he posted as a 20-year-old rookie and has not lived up to his contract with the Cubs, while Strasburg was maybe the best pitching prospect ever when he came out of San Diego State, but has not been the best pitcher on the Nationals.
But both have been very good big leaguers for about a decade now. Heyward was, on average, worth 5.0 bWAR per season in his six pre-free-agency years, and apart from his execrable 2016 season, he’s been an above-average player, by Baseball-Reference’s wins above average, every season of his career so far. Strasburg, despite struggling to stay healthy (he’s thrown 200 innings in a season just once), is a three-time All-Star who led the league in strikeouts in 2014 and finished third in Cy Young voting in 2017. He’s been worth 27.4 bWAR and 17.2 WAA in parts of 10 big league seasons, which would make him the best starter on most of the 29 teams that don’t also feature Max Scherzer.
Sometimes the no. 1 prospect doesn’t turn into an instant superstar, but he does turn into a very good big league player for a very long time.
2009: Matt Wieters (BA, BP, ESPN), David Price (MLB)
Price is a five-time All-Star who’s won a Cy Young and finished second two other times, and at 33 there’s still a small but non-trivial chance he makes a run at the Hall of Fame.
Wieters is a less sexy name, but like Benintendi he was a safe college position player who had limited superstar potential but looked extremely likely to be a good big leaguer, which he was; in eight seasons with the Orioles, Wieters made four All-Star teams, won two Gold Gloves, and hit .256/.318/.421, which is pretty good for a catcher, if not exactly Yogi Berra–like. Short of the kind of injury and developmental icebergs Profar and Buxton ran into, this is about the floor of what you can expect from a no. 1 overall position-player prospect.
Even among the position players who landed atop a global prospect list, there’s a variety of skill sets and developmental paths. But the names here illustrate that it’s reasonable to expect Guerrero, based on his prospect status, to make multiple All-Star teams and contend for an MVP or two. Even the most optimistic Blue Jays fans know better than to expect a Troutlike career, but it’d be perfectly logical to look at what Seager, Harper, and Bryant have done so far and count on something similar from Vladito.
Even the “disappointing” position players on this list have had long and productive careers, barring one extreme injury outlier and two unfinished products who had questions about their hit tools that simply aren’t an issue for Vladito. The hype around the Blue Jays’ rookie third baseman is enormous, but if history is any indication, it will be justified.