Vlad's defense a sneaky standout after first test

April 27th, 2019

TORONTO -- Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo knew Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was comfortable with his new surroundings as soon as he touched the ball in his very first game.

Guerrero made his long-awaited Major League debut Friday night against the A's and helped spark a walk-off win with a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth. The swing is what generated most of the postgame buzz, but Guerrero's defense also deserved praise.

The 20-year-old third baseman made a pair of difficult plays and at no point did Guerrero look out of place. That's an encouraging early development for the Dominican native whose defensive play has been frequently criticized and considered by some to be a liability.

"To make that first play that he made, you have to be comfortable," Montoyo said. "That's when I knew, yeah, he's relaxed."

One of the reasons the Blue Jays said they kept Guerrero in the Minor Leagues until Friday was to continue working on his defense. Guerrero's bat arguably has been Major League-ready for about a year, but his defense at third base remains a work in progress, and that growth will now continue at the big league level.

The long-term goal is for Guerrero to play well off the line at third. Before that can happen, his range will need to improve and he will have to show himself capable of routinely making backhanded plays to his right. There will be similar challenges on the shift, as Guerrero will have to move to the right side of second and become comfortable turning two.

The goal in all of this for Guerrero to avoid needing a position change. There have been plenty of scouts who believe Guerrero is destined for first base, but the club remains committed to developing him at third and is prepared for the ups and downs that might come with that decision.

"It's not that we're concerned about his defense, it's that we want him to be an All-Star third baseman that pitchers love and everyone feels that he's one of the better defenders in the game," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said.

"Shooting for that means he's going to have to see it that way. To be exceptional, not only as a hitter, but also as a third baseman and really striving for that. No, we have not had discussions about him transitioning off of that position."

Guerrero passed his first test on Friday night with ease. In the top of the second inning, Stephen Piscotty hit a high chopper to third. It was a dangerous play because Guerrero could have been stuck between hops. Instead, he took a couple of aggressive steps in, picked the ball on a short hop and made a strong off-balance throw to first.

In the seventh, Guerrero showed off his arm strength. This time it was Chad Pinder who hit a chopper to third. Pinder's chopper was hit harder then the previous one and it forced Guerrero to take a couple of steps back. Guerrero didn't have much time but he fielded the ball cleanly, planted his right foot and made a strong throw across the diamond for the out.

"I let him know right on the spot, how I feel about it," Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman said. "That was an unbelievable short hop that he had today and he showed off that cannon too, late in the game.

"I can sit here and rave about him all day, but to be honest with you, I can't wait to get out there and watch him play. I haven't been around him for a season, or had the ability to play with him, so I'm more excited than anyone."