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Vlad Jr. and the Blue Jays' dilemma

Toronto must decide when time is right to promote top prospect
MLB.com @williamfleitch

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made an out Wednesday afternoon, but don't worry: He only made one.

The No. 2 prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline and the most highly regarded talent still in the Minor Leagues, Vlad Jr. went nuts again Wednesday, notching four hits, including a homer, and finishing a triple short of the cycle in Double-A New Hampshire's 7-1 win over Hartford. Guerrero is now hitting .415 with seven homers in 34 games for New Hampshire, with his most recent bomb this terrifying shot:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made an out Wednesday afternoon, but don't worry: He only made one.

The No. 2 prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline and the most highly regarded talent still in the Minor Leagues, Vlad Jr. went nuts again Wednesday, notching four hits, including a homer, and finishing a triple short of the cycle in Double-A New Hampshire's 7-1 win over Hartford. Guerrero is now hitting .415 with seven homers in 34 games for New Hampshire, with his most recent bomb this terrifying shot:

Tweet from @FisherCats: But of course he did! Vlad Jr. becomes the first Fisher Cats to record 4 hits in a game by going DEEP to LF for his 7th HR and 40th RBI. He���s a triple shy of the cycle...! pic.twitter.com/OMo4wPzomT

It is a particularly fun time to be a fan of New Hampshire, by the way, especially if you loved collecting baseball cards in the 1990s. The Fisher Cats are 23-13 and in first place in the Eastern League's Eastern Division standings. Not only is Vlad Jr. launching baseballs in every direction, Bo Bichette, Dante's son, is raking at shortstop and ranks as Pipeline's No. 11 overall prospect (and Blue Jays' No. 2). Even Craig Biggio's son, Cavan, is on the team, and he has crushed a league-leading 12 homers.

If you're in the New Hampshire area this weekend, it is highly advised you get yourself to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester; not only can you get a Vlad Jr. T-shirt, you also get to see them play the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, which means you also get to see Tim Tebow (who has his average up to .250).

It is also highly advised you get to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium this weekend because it might be one of the last times you get to see Vlad Jr. in the Minors. Even though Vlad Jr. is still only 19 years old -- he would instantly become the youngest player in Major League Baseball by about a year and a half -- the wails for him to get the promotion to Toronto are becoming more overwhelming by the minute. It is perhaps an indictment of our immediate culture that a human being who only turned 19 two months ago is considered long overdue to be called up to the Majors (he has waited so long at age 19) but nevertheless, Vlad Jr. is almost ready, if he's not already.

Video: Top Prospects: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays

This brings us to the parent club he will be joining: The Toronto Blue Jays have been one of the best teams in the American League over the past few years, reaching the League Championship Series in both 2015 and '16. That '15 team was a particular monster, stacked with veteran talent (See: Price, David) and seemingly primed for their breakthrough. But the Royals knocked out the Blue Jays that year, and the Indians did so in '16, and then Toronto lost 86 games in '17.

In a season in which many teams have perhaps looked forward to future seasons rather than necessarily getting wrapped up in the day-to-day success of the current one, the Blue Jays fancied themselves contenders coming into 2018. Toronto is holding on to potential trade chips like Josh Donaldson, a potential free agent at the end of the season, to make one last run at the World Series that so cruelly eluded them in '15 and '16. The slugging duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion is gone, and this feels like the last season of the old guard and, potentially, with Guerrero and company raking in the Minors, the first season of the next. It's an undeniable transition year.

But with that transition comes the reckoning of this season. On one hand, it's clear the Blue Jays aren't all in for 2018; they didn't go sign any huge free-agent contracts or trade off any of those prospects for present glory. But the team didn't come into this season unarmed either, hanging on to Donaldson and bringing in Curtis Granderson, Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz and Randal Grichuk in quiet, yet tactical moves. Toronto isn't saying goodbye to Donaldson without a fight, and that fight includes winning in '18. The club doesn't want the door slammed yet.

A look at Blue Jays after 1st quarter

So, on one hand, it's working out all right. The Blue Jays have a winning record, 22-21 in the AL East -- arguably the toughest division in baseball -- largely in part to some unexpected performances from some unexpected players. The team's bullpen, in particular, has been nails, thanks to a gaggle of 30-somethings -- from Tyler Clippard to Ryan Tepera to Seung Hwan Oh to even John Axford, out of nowhere; the Jays barely miss closer Roberto Osuna, who was placed on administrative leave by the Commissioner's Office after a domestic violence charge. Donaldson has gotten off to a somewhat slow start, but 30-somethings have picked up the slack on offense too, namely Justin Smoak and a resurgent Granderson, who is somehow putting up the highest on-base percentage of his career. That's a lot of old guys producing -- the only regular under 29 is Teoscar Hernandez -- but you'll take your wins where you can get them.

But it's the context that's the problem: Basically, the Blue Jays are having the year they needed to have last year. The Twins won the second AL Wild Card spot in 2017 with 85 wins. That's not going to cut it this year. Both the Yankees and Red Sox are on 109-win paces; there's one AL Wild Card spot essentially locked up right there.

Tweet from @MLBPipeline: Vlad Jr. is 19.Vlad Jr. is the youngest player in Double-A.Vlad Jr. is 2nd in @MiLB in batting (.415).Vlad Jr. had another huge game today.Vlad Jr. kept a no-no alive with a 💎 today.Vlad Jr. is good.More on the Vlad Jr.: https://t.co/jWNeajY1pr pic.twitter.com/SVFamMHtp0

And it's looking considerably less likely that the race for the second slot will be the shambling slap-fest it was last year, thanks to the emergence of the Angels, who not only have two of the most exciting players in baseball, but also seem to have at last cobbled together a pitching staff. All six of the Angels' starters have put up an ERA-plus over 100, above-average seasons so far, led not only by two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, but also by Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards. The Angels are on a 94-win pace themselves; it's going to be difficult to chase them. Considering the current ugliness of the AL Central, the AL is in danger of being decided by the All-Star break.

The Mariners are still hot on the Angels' tail -- just a half-game back -- but they just lost one of their best players for nearly three months. (And the postseason, if it comes to that.)

If someone's going to make a race for that second AL Wild Card spot, it could be the Blue Jays. And considering how much transition Toronto faces this offseason -- Donaldson, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ can all be free agents -- it needs to either give itself the best opportunity to win every game right now or probably needs to start shopping Donaldson. The Blue Jays (and Mariners) are your only real bets for a competitive playoff race in the AL. But every win counts, and things could get away from the Jays quickly if they're not careful; they are, after all, already three games behind the Angels. They need wins now.

Pipeline Rewind: Vlad Jr., Bichette analyze their ABs

Which is to say: The Blue Jays need Vlad Jr. If Toronto is going to give this the one last finishing kick under the Donaldson era, it needs its best players on the roster this very second. Fitting Vlad Jr. into the lineup isn't easy; obviously Donaldson is manning third base right now, and the Jays have a full-time designated hitter in Kendrys Morales already. But Morales is hitting .152, and time is ticking.

The Blue Jays have a window to sneak in one last playoff appearance with this core before Vlad Jr. and the other sons of '90s Topps All-Stars take over. It'll require every win Toronto can get, which means getting Vlad Jr. up now before it's too late. The Jays have prudent reasons to keep Vlad Jr. down, not the least of which is that he's just 19. But if the club is urgent about winning this year, the time is now.

Well, maybe not now. After all, that series in New Hampshire this weekend -- with the Vlad Jr. T-shirts and Tebow -- might be too much of a spectacle to deny the planet. So, OK, the time is after this weekend. But then. Definitely, immediately then.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Toronto Blue Jays