While Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s hitting talents are well documented, there are many questions about where he’ll end up on defence. Something tells me he’ll have a similar career to Miguel Cabrera’s when it comes to defensive positioning.
If you can hit well enough at the big league level, you’ll find your way into a lineup one way or another, or at least that’s always been the belief around the game. For years we’ve watched defensive liabilities trot out on the field with a glove for no other reason than their skills at the plate. Sometimes you have to take the bad in order to get the good, and it still makes sense.
When that questionable defender is an elite hitter, there’s no debate about whether or not they will play, and sometimes teams will even go to extensive lengths to improve the other side of the ball.
The Blue Jays have at least one of those elite hitters in their minor league system right now, and one of the biggest reasons he hasn’t made it all the way to the big league club is because his glove hasn’t kept up with his bat. Of course I’m talking about Vladimir Guerrero Jr, and when you’ve performed the way he has at the plate, it’s nearly impossible for the defensive side of the game to keep up. He slashed .402/.449/.671 in Double-A before his recent promotion, also adding 14 home runs, 60 RBI, and 19 doubles in just 61 games played.
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Despite the way I lead off this article, I don’t expect Guerrero Jr. to be a gigantic liability on defence. However, I think it’s understood that he’s not necessarily an asset at third base, at least not yet. To be fair though, he’s still only 19 years old and has always been the youngest player in any league he’s played in as a professional. By any other standard, we’d be okay with the way he’s played on defence as a minor leaguer, and would likely have higher hopes for him on that side of the ball.
In Guerrero’s case though, it’s also universally understood that his bat will get him to the big leagues sooner than later, and likely before his glove is truly ready to take on the challenge. Maybe he’ll crush that opportunity too, just as he has pitchers at every professional level, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to be a Gold Glove contender.
The other issue is the young man’s sheer size, as he’s already listed at 6’1 and 200 lbs, and I’m willing to bet that number is pretty out of date. It’s not that he’s on the chunky side at all either, it’s just that this is a huge kid, and one that is inevitably going to get bigger as he matures and ultimately becomes a full-grown man. As a teenager he’s already an imposing figure at the plate, and it’s only going to get worse for pitchers as he gets into his early 20’s.
As I’ve thought about and paid attention to his defensive numbers this season, I keep coming back to one comparison that makes a lot of sense, at least in my mind. Another big time slugger that broke into the league as a 20 year old third baseman/outfielder, and grew into a frame that lead him across the diamond, and eventually to plenty of time at DH. I’m talking about none other than Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.
Cabrera was a much smaller man when he broke in with the Florida Marlins back in 2003 playing 55 games in left field and 34 at third base. He also played in right field as a Marlin, and was usually in the -1.0 dWAR rating area regardless of where he was playing. Despite being an negative WAR defender, he more than made up with it with his work with the stick, especially as he gained more experience.
The future Hall of Famer went back and forth between the outfield and third base, until he ultimately became a Detroit Tiger in 2008. That year Cabrera made the move to first base, playing 143 games at the new position, and still getting 14 starts at third base as well. He wouldn’t play there again until 2012, and was only moved there because the Tigers had signed Prince Fielder, who needed to play first with Victor Martinez as the full-time DH.
Now 35 years old and listed as 6’4 and 249 pounds, Cabrera doesn’t have the mobility to play third base anymore, and hasn’t appeared there regularly since 2013, last playing one game in 2015. He did a pretty job of offering the Tigers options as he went through his late 20’s and into his 30’s, which allowed them to go out and sign Fielder at the time.
For Vlad Guerrero Jr, I have a feeling that his frame will eventually move him off of third base in much the same way that it did for Cabrera. I’m not talking about advanced stats or anything here, just simply the eye test when I look at the two individuals. And if I were taking another guess, I would think that Guerrero could be even bigger than Cabrera when he’s at the height of his physical peak.
I do believe that young Vlad will start his career as an MLB third baseman, but much like Cabrera, I don’t expect it to last throughout his career. Whether that eventually takes him to a corner outfield spot, to first base, or even eventually to DH, that doesn’t mean that the Blue Jays won’t have a tremendous asset, regardless of where he lines up.
If you’re trying to get the maximum value out the top rated prospect in the game, giving up on him defensively at just 19 years old isn’t an option. He’s been a notable hard worker on both sides of the ball, and he’s shown he’s got a very strong arm, and even pretty soft hands at third base. It’ll be the mobility that ultimately determines whether he can stick at the position or not, and that could change as he ages.
Regardless of where ends up with the glove, Guerrero Jr. projects to have the potential to be one of the best hitters in the league once he arrives. And much like Miguel Cabrera, as long as he hits, the Blue Jays will have a spot for him in the lineup. For now, it’s great to see him continuing to work on the craft, and I would expect that’ll stick for at least the beginning of his career. Then again, he’s got so much natural talent, he may just prove me completely wrong too.