Why Vlad Jr. thinks '23 Blue Jays are a 'more complete team'

January 20th, 2023

TORONTO -- The quick, crushing and unusually cruel end to the Blue Jays’ 2022 season brought with it a reality check. The Blue Jays were good, but being good isn’t enough.

The same goes for the face of their franchise, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Guerrero hit 32 home runs with an .818 OPS last year, picking up his first career Gold Glove Award and a trip to his second All-Star Game. For most of baseball, that’s a dream season. For a prodigious talent who comes from baseball royalty and nearly won an MVP Award the year prior at age 22, it was a disappointment.

The Blue Jays go as Guerrero does, and when you look at this remodeled roster, there’s more than enough talent to do something greater. It’s difficult to call this version of the Blue Jays better or worse with any level of authority, but they’re undoubtedly different.

Part of the whirlwind included the Blue Jays trading Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who were not only the club’s talented corner outfielders, but two of Guerrero’s closest friends. This is the tricky human element that enters the equation when good, young teams reach this point and are forced to move on from some of their original core pieces.

“It’s a part of the business and I can’t control that,” Guerrero said via an interpreter. “Of course, Teo and Lourdes are great friends of mine and great players, but it is what it is. On the other hand, I’ll just work with the new guys and try to make them feel good.”

Hernández had grown into a star with the Blue Jays, winning back-to-back Silver Slugger Awards. Gurriel didn’t have the accolades of Hernández , but he was plenty talented when healthy. Late last summer, manager John Schneider listed Gurriel as one of the club’s core leaders, a surprise to many who only see Gurriel’s goofy exterior, but not his quieter conversations within the clubhouse.

“Obviously, Lourdes, like Teo, was one of my best friends on the team,” Guerrero said. “We’d been playing together since the Minor Leagues. He was always giving me a lot of advice and helping me out. He’s a great leader and I wish him the best.”

Each move the Blue Jays have made has come with a clubhouse element, of course, right up to the recent signing of Brandon Belt, who was beloved in San Francisco and won two championships there. This clubhouse is drastically different than those 2015-16 postseason teams, where Alek Manoah’s fire would have fit right in, but the front office says that this was not a primary focus.

“It certainly wasn’t a priority. We feel very good about the personality and the professionalism of our clubhouse, but we’re always looking to improve,” general manager Ross Atkins said, “and always looking to make progress.”

The Blue Jays’ decision to approach a World Series run from a different angle here is sensible, though. Each year, clubs loaded with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers fall short. Professional sports, where one team celebrates and 29 others fail, are inherently cruel.

This is a matter of style as much as anything, which Guerrero recognizes.

“It’s going to be different. A lot different,” Guerrero said. “The speed, we’re going to be faster, the defense, homers. It’s going to be a more complete team.”

Guerrero will be one of the early arrivers at camp, with World Baseball Classic players expected to hold their first workout on Monday, Feb. 13. Guerrero will represent his native Dominican Republic in the WBC -- part of a comically stacked roster -- and envisions those at-bats working just like Spring Training at-bats, allowing him to get through March without much interruption.

His weight is where he wants it to be, too, and Guerrero feels stronger and more flexible. It’s that time of year where every player is in the “best shape of his life,” but regardless, we’ve seen going back to his 2019 debut how Guerrero’s fitness and stamina over a long season can impact his slash line.

The simplest way for the Blue Jays to make the jump from good to great, though, is for Guerrero to make that same jump. Besides, he’s already been great, a hitter fully capable of 40-plus homers and a .900-plus OPS each season.

If that version of Guerrero shows up in 2023, it will mean more than anything the Blue Jays have done this offseason.