Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is determined to prove to the Blue Jays that he’s capable of handling third base, and that campaign officially kicked off Tuesday night at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Making his season debut with Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, Guerrero went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and one RBI in a 3-1 loss to Estrellas Orientales. He was eased in with a DH day to get the wheels rolling, but prior to the game, Guerrero made it perfectly clear why he’s there.
“I came to Escogido to play third base and to prepare to play third,” Guerrero said, speaking with media in Spanish on Tuesday. “That’s one of the main things I’m here for. I’m going to focus on third. Next year, I’m going back to my third base.”
That’s Guerrero’s intent, of course, not the club’s stated plan. The Blue Jays have been encouraged by Guerrero’s commitment to this process, which comes alongside some impressive changes to his physique this offseason, but there’s no sense in the Blue Jays making a decision yet. Third base is “open” after Travis Shaw was non-tendered, but the Blue Jays could explore a variety of internal and external options at the hot corner.
The reality is that, in 2019, Guerrero ranked last out of 218 infielders when it came to the Outs Above Average (OOA) defensive metric. Guerrero was valued at -16 OAA, with -10 of that coming on balls that he moved in toward home plate to field. That matches the eye test, as Guerrero often struggled to cleanly field grounders and establish a balanced throwing position while charging in.
“We’ll see. It’s interesting talking to players and coaches that were with him in the Minor Leagues, the conviction they have in his ability at third,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said Tuesday on MLB Network. “Our scouting department, we’ve been able to see him play there. He has the hands and the arm.”
Atkins is right. Guerrero’s hand-eye coordination -- something that made him baseball’s top prospect at the plate -- also shows itself in the field. His arm is plenty strong, too, and can handle the throw across the diamond. Add in the fundamentals of Guerrero’s footwork and the speed of a live game at third base, though, and those two strong tools haven’t been enough on their own.
While Guerrero is determined to prove he’s fully capable at third, a happy medium still exists here. If he can prove to the Blue Jays that he’s capable of handling 20 to 30 games at third base -- let’s call it one game a week -- that would add a valuable level of flexibility, especially if it’s behind a high-impact addition at third.
What can’t be forgotten, though, is Guerrero’s defense at first base. He learned on the job in 2020, but with first base still his likeliest position long term, the development of his defense there must also remain a priority.
“I felt a little more comfortable [at first base] at the end, but at first I felt more uncomfortable than at third base, since I’d been playing third for four years,” Guerrero said. “You’re not going to feel that great when you’ve played third for four years and suddenly you’re going to play first.”
For now, the Blue Jays will watch and support Guerrero. He’s just 21 years old and has lost weight this offseason, the first step toward what the Blue Jays hope are better “routines” stretched across multiple seasons. Guerrero has plenty of time, and that’s why the Blue Jays are giving it to him.
The most encouraging sign is that Guerrero is clearly motivated. His only struggles as a professional in the Minor Leagues came back in 2017-18 with these same Leones. Guerrero hit .211 with a .553 OPS that winter, a rare misstep at the time, then went back to dominating the Minors in spring.
Since then, he’s seen other young stars surpass him. He’s seen Juan Soto, now 22, emerge as one of the game’s brightest stars with the Nationals. He’s seen Fernando Tatis Jr., 21, do the same with the Padres. Guerrero’s .778 OPS through two seasons is impressive for a 21-year-old, but it’s below expectations for a young man projected as a generational offensive talent.
Now, Guerrero wants to rewind the narrative.
“I’m focused on getting to Spring Training in good shape,” Guerrero said. “I’m working on my condition. You learn from your mistakes.”