Back in 2017, an 18-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was promoted to the Class A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays, another step on his path to becoming baseball’s No. 1 prospect and the most-anticipated debut in franchise history.
Guerrero dominated. Over 48 games, he hit .333 against older, more advanced pitchers and helped Dunedin to a Florida State League co-championship alongside Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. Regardless of who Guerrero faced, everyone else seemed to fade into the background as the prodigious young slugger took center stage.
Since making his Major League debut, though, Guerrero has drifted in and out of that spotlight at times. His 2019 and 2020 seasons didn’t approach the massive expectations put on him, so he went to work, coming into camp this spring in the best shape of his big-league career. In Thursday’s home opener back in Dunedin, now TD Ballpark, Guerrero went toe-to-toe with two of the game’s biggest stars and looked like he belonged at that level. The Blue Jays fell 7-5 in 11 innings, but coming out of a strong Spring Training and a hot start to the season, Guerrero continues to tempt fans with the possibility that this is the year.
It started with a bang, when Guerrero stepped to the dish in the bottom of the first and sent a rocket over the wall in center. Travelling 404 feet with an exit velocity of 111.3 mph, this was already the fifth ball that Guerrero has put in play north of 110 mph this season.
“It’s all about timing. I think my timing is perfect right now,” Guerrero said earlier this week. “I’m seeing the ball very well, and I just feel comfortable at the plate.”
Then, Guerrero made the highlight-reel play you weren’t expecting. In the very next inning, Shohei Ohtani turned on a Ross Stripling changeup and ripped it, at 101.9 mph, down the first-base line. It looked like it would buzz over Guerrero and ricochet into the right-field corner, scoring a run, but Guerrero went vertical and his glove shot into the air, robbing Ohtani. Guerrero is still learning the fundamentals and finer details of first base, but his hands have always been exceptional.
“He came to the dugout really happy, telling Luis [Rivera], ‘Man, I’m a good first baseman now. I’m telling you. I’m only going to get better from now on. Even better,’” manager Charlie Montoyo said after the game. “He brought it up. He feels really comfortable there and we knew that was going to happen. The more he plays there, the more comfortable he’s going to get and he’s getting to that point now.”
So much of the focus lands on Guerrero’s bat, given his incredible gifts at the plate, but his defense is important here. Guerrero doesn’t need to win Gold Glove Awards, but even by developing into a comfortable, league-average defender at first, that can calm the rest of his game. Guerrero’s primary value will always come at the plate, but if he can chip in on the bases and with his glove, that’s a bonus.
Guerrero also drove home the Blue Jays’ fifth run to give them a lead in the sixth inning, shooting a single to the opposite field. Guerrero’s raw power is elite, but when he’s truly been at his best, he’s taking his walks -- like he did Thursday -- and hitting the ball to all fields.
Confidence matters here. Guerrero’s confidence was challenged in '19 and '20 as he went from baseball’s next great star to seeing other young players like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. surpass him. When Guerrero feels right, though, he plays with an infectious joy, and we’re starting to see that again.
“He’s still a kid,” Montoyo said. “He’s still learning that position. He’d never played it before until the big leagues and the more he plays, the more comfortable he’ll get. He’s happy with it. His confidence is really high.”
The rest of the Blue Jays lineup needs to catch up, of course, after striking out 14 times in Thursday’s loss, but that will happen eventually, especially when they get George Springer back in the fold. For now, though, Guerrero is doing what he was always projected to do, carrying a lineup and going toe-to-toe with the biggest names in baseball.