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Is Vlad Jr. the best prospect ever?

January 28, 2019

With apologies to the uber-talented Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, it should have surprised exactly no one that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ranked atop MLB Pipeline's recently unveiled Top 100 Prospects list. He's held that distinction since Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. graduated off the Top 100 last summer,

With apologies to the uber-talented Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eloy Jimenez, it should have surprised exactly no one that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ranked atop MLB Pipeline's recently unveiled Top 100 Prospects list. He's held that distinction since Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. graduated off the Top 100 last summer, and in retrospect, he may have a brighter future than either of the 2018 Rookies of the Year.

All Guerrero did last year, at age 19, was lead the Minors in hitting (.381), slugging (.636) and OPS (1.120) while reaching Triple-A. Good luck finding a scout who thinks he wasn't ready to handle big league pitching as a teenager.

Because there's no question that Guerrero is the best prospect in baseball, let's ask some bigger questions. Is he the best prospect in history? And if not, is he the best offensive prospect ever?

We've been posing those queries to veteran evaluators going back to the Arizona Fall League, where Guerrero again made hitting look much easier than it actually is. The consensus: His game isn't well-rounded enough to call him the best prospect ever, but it's difficult to find anyone who offered more offensive promise at a younger age.

For many scouts, Alex Rodriguez ranks as the best prospect of at least the last three decades and will be difficult to top. The No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 Draft, he debuted in the Majors during his first pro season as an 18-year-old and was in Seattle to stay at 20. At the same age Guerrero will be this season, Rodriguez batted .358/.414/.631 with 36 homers and 15 steals and was easily the best player in the American League.

Guerrero, who signed for $3.9 million as the top talent in the 2015 international amateur class, has batted .331/.414/.529 with 146 walks and 135 strikeouts as a pro. Those numbers hold up well against Rodriguez's in the Minors at the same stage: .328/.387/.603 with 60 walks and 126 whiffs. But where Guerrero is a fringy runner and defender at best, who may or may not be able to remain at third base, Rodriguez had plus speed and defensive ability at shortstop and would go on to steal 329 bases and win a pair of Gold Gloves in the Majors.

"A-Rod was the best," a senior executive with a National League club said. "I can't put Vlad over him. A-Rod did those things at shortstop, he was smooth. A-Rod's tools were through the roof. He was sleek, he could really run and throw. With Guerrero, the big attraction is his bat.

"But if you're asking me who the best hitter was, I might say Guerrero. I'm so impressed with him."

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout are two more prospects whom most scouts would rate ahead of Guerrero as all-around talents. Griffey went No. 1 overall in the 1987 Draft and tore up the Minors at a .320/.428/.576 clip before becoming an everyday player in Seattle at age 19. A true five-tool talent, he won 10 Gold Gloves in center field en route to becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"The two best amateur players I ever saw would be Griffey Jr. and A-Rod," a special assistant with an NL team said. "The best athlete was Griffey. The most polished high school player was A-Rod."

There's a bit of hindsight involved with Trout, who earned some Mickey Mantle comparisons in the Minors yet wasn't universally acclaimed as the game's best prospect before he joined the Angels for good in early 2012. (Some evaluators preferred Bryce Harper, while Matt Moore also drew support after leading the Minors in strikeouts in consecutive seasons and shutting out the Rangers for seven innings in the AL Division Series.) Trout hit .342/.425/.516 in the Minors en route to becoming a perennial AL MVP Award candidate and the best player in big league history through age 26.

Guerrero can't match the five-tool ability of Rodriguez, Griffey or Trout, but his offensive upside is off the charts. He possesses any attribute a scout would want in a hitter: bat speed, strength, a swing without holes, hand-eye coordination, advanced pitch recognition, a willingness to use all fields and the ability to homer to any part of any ballpark. If you were trying to build a perfect offensive prospect, the only change you might make would be to have Guerrero bat left-handed.

"He doesn't have the body or the tools that Trout or A-Rod or Griffey did, but he's got as good a chance to be a .300 hitter with 30 homers as any of those guys," a senior executive with an AL club said. "He has the physical ability to hit, coupled with the innate instincts to hit. He pretty much can hammer every pitch he sees.

"He's as good a looking hitter as I've ever come across in a decade or a generation. Just the physicality of the swing, the power and how direct it is, it's top shelf. He's going to hit."

Rodriguez and Griffey were as well regarded as hitters and sluggers as Guerrero is now. Few other ├╝berprospects from the past few decades can make that claim. Guerrero had more hittability than Andruw Jones and Harper, more power than Chipper Jones, Joe Mauer or Trout.

It's interesting to compare Guerrero to his Hall of Fame father. Vlad Sr. batted .343/.403/.581 with 95 walks and 115 whiffs in his first three pro seasons before getting to the Majors, but he was also two years older than his son at the same stage and not as polished at the plate.

"The thing that amazes me is he doesn't hit like his dad did," the NL senior executive said. "Vlad Sr. was super-duper aggressive and swung at everything. This kid doesn't do that. He has great discipline and balance. The pitch selection and poise for a young guy is so impressive."

The three names that come up the most when scouts are asked for a parallel to Guerrero are all right-handed hitters: Miguel Cabrera, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield. If you're wondering about Albert Pujols, he came out of nowhere and spent just one season in Class A before becoming a superstar, so there wasn't as much time in the Minors for him to leave an impression.

The best all-around comparison for Guerrero is Cabrera, who had similar offensive prowess, defensive shortcomings and an international background, though he batted just .286/.350/.431 with twice as many strikeouts as walks as a Minor Leaguer. The best statistical resemblance belongs to Sheffield, who hit .314/.396/.539 with 157 walks versus 125 strikeouts before surfacing in the Majors at age 19. Still the most talented high school hitting prospect some scouts ever have seen, Ramirez batted .316/.408/.595 before making his big league debut at age 21.

"Vladdy is going to hit and hit for power," the NL special assistant said. "He can hit breaking balls and uses the whole field so well for a young hitter. He's very good at identifying and hitting breaking and offspeed stuff.

"Manny's swing was classic, while Vladdy is more in line with Miggy because of his hand action. Manny was more direct to the ball, a line-drive swing, while Vladdy and Miggy had a bit more loop and loft in their swing at the same age.

Though it's impossible to consider Guerrero underrated, the AL senior executive thinks he doesn't get enough credit for the mental side of hitting.

"Physically, he's got the bat speed and the swing path to be with or even better than all of those guys," the executive said. "We tend to just say these guys have the genes and the great swing. But Miggy was very prepared. Manny was a hitting savant. It wasn't just all natural talent -- they prepared. I've heard from other people who know him that's going on with Vlad too."

Nearly everyone mentioned in this article is either a Hall of Famer or posted Cooperstown-worthy numbers. Those are lofty standards for Guerrero to live up to, yet virtually everyone who has watched him play expects him to do exactly that.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.