The Toronto Blue Jays don’t have much hope for this season, not for as long as AL East peers the Yankees and Red Sox and even the Rays continue to exceed Toronto’s abilities by such a wide margin. But there is one reason to get excited about the Blue Jays in 2019, and his name rhymes with “Rad Wheelbarrow.” Nineteen-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the undisputed best hitting prospect in baseball, boasts ear-tingling power, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s in a Blue Jays organization that’s allegedly trying to find its way back into playoff contention after a couple of seasons in the woods.
But it looks like any Vlad-induced excitement will have to wait until after Opening Day. After refusing to call him up from the minors at any point last season, GM Ross Atkins today wouldn’t commit to any sort of timeline for bringing Vlad up to the majors this year, implying that he hasn’t yet reached his full potential in the minors.
Man, why is this even a question? There is no doubt whatsoever about Guerrero’s potential ability to hit major-league pitching. Across 408 plate appearances in several levels of the minors last year, Guerrero slashed .381/.437/.636 and hit 20 dingers. Steamer projections for 2019 already put Guerrero among the best in the game, giving him a batting average that exceeds .300 and a slugging percentage of .511. Even if he only plays the projected three-fourths of the season, Steamer still has him as a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, with a 4.6 WAR, and other systems rate him similarly. There are questions about his defense in the real world that don’t show up in the projections, but come on, this is the American League, and Kendrys Morales has only the limpest of grips on the Jays’ DH spot if third base really becomes an issue.
The answer then for why Guerrero needs to stay down for longer is, of course, service time. Players escape team control and enter free agency in the offseason after completing six years of MLB service, and “one year” is defined as 172 days in the majors out of the 187-day season. Toronto obviously feels like they can’t make a real effort towards competing in 2019, and rather than field the best team they can and try anyway, they’d prefer to trap small Vlad in their organization for as long as possible, at a cheap contract far below his real value.
The Blue Jays most definitely are not the only team pulling these shenanigans. The Cubs did it in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who came up and won NL Rookie of the Year. The Braves kept down Ronald Acuña Jr. for the start of 2018, until he, too, joined the team and won Rookie of the Year. And god knows when the White Sox are going to let Eloy Jiménez into the big leagues. The long-term strategy makes bloodless sense under the deeply flawed MLB rules governing younger players, but actively depriving fans of the player they most want to see, for no reason other than a desire to suppress competition for his services as long as possible, is at best a very mean-spirited way to run a baseball team. Guerrero hopefully joins the team after just a few weeks in minor-league purgatory, but until then, enjoy Brandon Drury!