Vlad Jr. transitioning to the other corner

July 10th, 2020

TORONTO -- The inevitable is happening ahead of schedule in Toronto: is shifting his focus to first base.

Manager Charlie Montoyo said Friday that first base will be Guerrero's primary position for the immediate future, along with reps at designated hitter. Montoyo still wants to keep the 21-year-old's options open, though, and isn’t shutting the door entirely on third.

“We’ve been talking about that since Spring Training, before we got shut down. He was already taking ground balls at first base with [third-base coach] Luis Rivera,” Montoyo said. “Talking to [general manager Ross Atkins] and Vladdy, Vladdy feels motivated to do it.”

Guerrero’s buy-in is key here, but that’s already been taken care of. Along with Rivera, Guerrero has been working with other first basemen on the team. They’ve helped him with some of the finer nuances of the position, but also some of the basics, like making sure the runner doesn’t step on your foot.

“I feel very good about it,” Guerrero said. “I did what I could. I feel good, and I’m ready. I’m ready for the season to start and to help my team win. I’m good. My body feels great.”

Long term, it’s very likely that Guerrero moves in the direction of first, where he’s been projected to spend the majority of his career. The 21-year-old has some of the physical tools to play third, but a few defensive highlights in his debut season couldn’t cover up the reality of the situation.

Using Statcast’s Infield Outs Above Average (OAA) metric, Guerrero was worth -16 OAA in 2019, ranking last out of 218 qualified infielders. These numbers support the eye test in a more specific way, too, with Guerrero being worth -10 OAA on balls that he had to move toward home plate to field -- third worst among qualified infielders. Guerrero has quick feet and a very strong arm, but he often seemed to struggle with balance and setting his feet when moving in on balls.

The simple version is that Guerrero is a hitter, with the potential to be one of the best on the planet. While he was creating a negative value at third base, the shift to first can viewed through the big-picture lens rather easily.

“It’s all about a player having the best chance to compete,” Montoyo said. “It’s going to be a short season, so, for me, the best chance for Vladdy is play first, DH and also play third. Knowing that can play third, because I’ve seen him and he’s a good third baseman, helps that. But this is more about Vladdy.”

The Blue Jays will have plenty of other options at third base, which is all part of the plan.

“That’s the beauty of Vladdy playing first now. Vladdy can play third if I need him. [] can play third, Shaw -- I’ve got so many options now,” Montoyo said, later adding to that list. “That’s what it opens up, so many chances.”

If Guerrero can play closer to a league-average first base while some combination of Shaw, Biggio and Panik lock down third, it’s value added for the Blue Jays. If a more solid and confident defensive base can allow him to focus more freely on his hitting -- remember how similar changes impacted and last season? -- it could be a major difference maker.

Guerrero did fall just short of his massive expectations in 2019, but he doesn’t think that had anything to do with his defense dragging down his bat.

“I don’t think that was a problem. I think it was the games,” Guerrero said. “I’d never played that many games in a season before in the Minor Leagues. Other than that, I think it was all good. It was just too many games for me. That’s why I got tired at the end.”

Guerrero is scheduled to play first base in Friday's intrasquad game, but Montoyo is confident in the work his youngster has already put in during regular first base drills stretching back to camp.

Looking even further down the road, this could also leave third base open for someone like No. 2 prospect Jordan Groshans or Austin Martin, the No. 5 overall pick from the 2020 Draft.