Vlad Jr. and the Toronto Blue Jays should take note of the players who won the AL & NL MVP Awards in 2020 and plot a course adjustment for VGJ’s role in 2021.
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Here’s hoping Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. found the time between off-season conditioning efforts to see who was named the 2021 MVPs in each league this past Thursday. Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman, both first basemen by trade, were selected as the best players at any position for their respective teams and leagues. As always, their offensive exploits propelled them into the highlights and spotlights of baseball writers and fans. But it was their superior defensive contributions (at a position where sabermatricians dismiss such things) that secured them the votes to win the awards. So while VGJ has vowed to improve his defensive performance at his original position, and Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins allows for the chance for him to do just that, Blue Jays fans should be hoping team equipment managers somehow misplace Vladdy’s gloves when loading up the vans bound for Dunedin in February.
Vlad Jr. may very well dictate the immediate and long-term futures of the Toronto Blue Jays. There can be no denying the raw tools and awesome athleticism Vladdy has been blessed with. Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and any baseball publication worth noticing all agreed that VGJ was the #1 overall prospect in MLB at the start of the 2019 season. Ranked ahead of another Jr. who is on the verge of sainthood in San Diego (Fernando Tatis, Jr.) a Cuban prospect who was given a 6 year, 43 million dollar extension before earning a MLB at-bat (Eloy Jiminez), and a dynamic outfielder who helped jumpstart his team to a World Series title (Victor Robles).
As we stand at the end of an abbreviated 2020 season and on the cusp of a compromised 2021, the same industry analysts would all agree that all three of the players have surpassed Vladdy’s production levels at the plate and have cemented themselves as fixtures in the field with superior performances at their preferred positions. Guerrero, Jr. was an atrocious third basemen and a lumbering first basemen in his first 2 seasons as a major league regular.
And that’s ok.
On an October JFtC Radio Podcast, I had opined that the best thing that could happen in the development of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. as the Blue Jays franchise cornerstone would be to have him become the primary designated hitter for 2021. JFtC Editor/Founder Shaun Doyle was intrigued; JFtC Writer/Optimist Karen Soutar seemed to disagree. I can only imagine how you feel at the moment as you read on. But as lovable and promising as Vladdy is as the centerpiece of a Toronto championship future, the optics of VGJ with a glove on instead of a bat in his hands are less than flattering.
FANGRAPHS rated his defensive metrics as -10.6 at 3B in 2019 and an improved but impoverished -6.9 at the other corner infield position. This is not to dismiss entirely the possibility of Vladdy finding a permanent home at some position in the future. But if Toronto seriously hopes to contend next season, Guerrero, Jr. needs to be content smiling and cheering from the dugout while his teammates take the field.
And that’s ok, too.
In 1994, fresh off consecutive World Series titles, Blue Jays management was touting and fans drooling over the talents of an uber-prospect by the name of Carlos Delgado. While not as universally praised as Vladdy, Delgado displayed prodigious power and prowess with the bat perhaps not seen since (perhaps) George Bell. Delgado was signed and developed as a catcher and believed to be the heir apparent to Pat Borders. The only problem was that as a catching prospect, Delgado was a promising power hitter.
Cito Gaston decided to open the 1994 season with Delgado as the Blue Jays’ starting left fielder and he hit 8 HR and 18 RBI in the team’s first 13 games. but cooled off dramatically and by the end of May. Delgado was back behind the plate in Syracuse. Spring Training 1995 heroics earned Delgado an Opening Day roster spot, but he hit only .154 through 14 games and was sent back to AAA and began his transformation into a first baseman. In 1996, Delgado was made the full-time DH posting a 25/92/.270 line and by the next season, he had began a streak of 10 consecutive seasons with 30-plus homeruns. The next year started a stretch of 6 consecutive seasons with more than 100 RBI. Eventually Delgado refined his defensive skills to the point that he saw significant playing time at first base, but it was Gaston’s decision to harness his power and bat as a DH first that changed the conversation about the remainder of Delgado’s outstanding career.
I will concede that Vladdy is a fundamentally better athlete than Delgado and projects to be a less power-centric hitter. He has certainly been more successful in his first 2 major league seasons than Delgado. In his first taste of the major leagues, VGJ posted a base offensive line of 15 HR 63 RBI .272/.339/,433. Vladdy regressed a tad in 2020 (.262/.329/.462), which is still a better showing than Delgado posted. Plus Guerrero Jr. did not get demoted back to AAA like Delgado was-and I am not suggesting that should be considered by Toronto management.
But there are no metrics or in-game indicators that Vladdy has established himself at any defensive position thus far. One must admire VGJ’s determination to become the third basemen he and the Blue Jays envisioned him as. But my comparison to the early struggles of Carlos Delgado are not limited to the batting lines. Delgado worked hard to refine his skill behind the plate and team management wanted him to remain as a major league catching option perhaps more than Delgado himself did. But will alone does not make a player better with the glove. Baseball seasons are scattered with stories of players whose limitations and failures forced position changes or relegation to the DH spot. David Ortiz, Nelson Cruz…what MLB organization would not jump at the opportunity to add those types of hitters to their roster.
A more abstract argument for making Vladdy the primary DH for (at least) the 2021 season is the flexibility such a decision can provide the front office when exploring free agency and the trade market. Third base, first base and even shortstop options seem more practical if Guerrero Jr. is assigned to the designated hitter role. Not to mention the benefit to the pitching staff if the acquisitions provide a significant defensive upgrade. As we reviewed in the opening lines of this article, the MVP values of Abreu and Freeman were greatly enhanced by their abilities to field their positions, scoop up wayward throws from the infielders, and knack for knowing how and when to make a play. Even if the analytics crowd seems to dismiss defensive contributions of first basemen when assessing such players value to winning ballgames. To update a treasured baseball saying, “First in WAR is not First in MVP voting-and certainly not First in the American League”.
One thing COVID and the 60-game 2020 baseball season has taught us is nothing is certain. But Vladimir Guerrero Jr. certainly did not seem to be having fun in the field or at the plate last season. Certainly he can eventually develop into an average and valuable major league fielder at a yet uncertain position. But certainly you will agree that giving Vladdy a chance to excel at what he does best on the baseball diamond-HIT- is a much better option than watching him flounder in the field.
I’m certain that is OK.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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