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Atkins on Blue Jays' growth over 2019 season

Toronto GM discusses Vlad Jr., getting fifth overall pick and the club's need to build on defense
@baseballexis
October 1, 2019

TORONTO -- Amid a season of opportunities for the Blue Jays, the organization wanted its young players to embrace the chance they had to learn, hoping the squad’s freshest faces would take what they’ve gleaned and continue to run with it through the offseason and beyond. As his education on

TORONTO -- Amid a season of opportunities for the Blue Jays, the organization wanted its young players to embrace the chance they had to learn, hoping the squad’s freshest faces would take what they’ve gleaned and continue to run with it through the offseason and beyond.

As his education on and off the field continued, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. -- baseball’s No. 1 prospect heading into the year -- impressed the brass with his ability to battle through the season and maintain his level of competitiveness and motivation in an atmosphere he’d never before experienced.

While there is room for much improvement, through the ups and downs of the Major Leagues, the 20-year-old third baseman hit .272/.339/.433 with 15 home runs, 26 doubles, two triples and 69 RBIs in 123 games.

“The thing about Vladdy that’s so encouraging and so impressive is he was never out of a game offensively,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said. “He might have had an at-bat or two where he lost the fight a little early, but never for an entire game, and that is incredible to see for someone who is 20 years old. He was up with the game on the line a lot, and we always felt great about him being up with the game on the line.”

For Guerrero, the most important thing he took away from his rookie campaign was just that, his ability to embrace the later innings of matchups down the stretch as the end of the season neared.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” Guerrero said through team interpreter Hector Lebron. “Things late in the game -- how to concentrate and do things late in the game -- like running the bases, and things like that, that’s what I’ve been learning all year.

“In the late innings, late in the game, things are different, it depends how the scores go. So basically I’ve been learning that, picking up everything late in the games, tie games, running the bases, defensively-wise, how to attack pitchers, all that.”

As Toronto looks ahead to Spring Training, while encouraged by what it's seen already, the team is hoping for all-around improvements from the young infielder, on the field and off.

“He knows he has to come in in overall better condition,” Atkins said. “And he has a plan to do that. He is committed to it. We have helped him construct it and it’s really clear. It’s a very clear plan if he executes -- he will -- and if we execute. We’ll be accountable for that as well. So if we can do that together, he’ll be in a much better place.”

Moving up the Draft board

After a 67-95 finish to the regular season, the Blue Jays secured the fifth overall pick in the 2020 Draft, the highest choice for Toronto since it took Vernon Wells at No. 5 in 1997. While the pick certainly offers more value to the selection process for the organization, securing it was more bitter than sweet.

“What I hope from the fifth pick is not to have to pick that high more than one year, that would be my hope,” Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro said. “Knowing that we pick there, you want to make sure you take advantage of the opportunities.

“With [director of amateur scouting] Steve Sanders and [senior vice president of player personnel] Tony LaCava and our staff and the job they’ve done, I’m confident we will take advantage of it, and it will give us a greater understanding of the group of players we’re selecting from. The further down you go, the more you have to look at variables and alternatives, as well as besides that ability to narrow and then scout more, obviously to get a higher-ceiling player.”

Added Atkins: “Candidly, at the start of 2019 I was not hoping to be picking fifth. But there is a big difference in that, in terms of value.”

Defensively sounding off

As attention turned to the team’s defense -- particularly in the outfield -- as the season wore on, questions focused on whether the Blue Jays might look outside the organization at pieces to add or move, but the team’s general manager was encouraged by some of the strides made on the field and what it could mean moving forward.

“It’s extremely important and something that we value and something that we’ll look to get better at,” Atkins said. “Objectively, we were average this year, hovered around average as a defensive team. So how good our catching was this year, the progress of Cavan Biggio, the progress of Bo Bichette, Brandon Drury is obviously a very good defender, Randal Grichuk is at least an average defender, Lourdes Gurriel is probably an average defender and we could have been better in center.

“We’re optimistic that will continue to get better and we will look to improve it. It’s not an area where we’re saying we’re fine, but it’s also not an area that we feel is a glaring, glaring hole. … There are going to be opportunities for us to improve in different ways.”

Alexis Brudnicki is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.