The case for the Blue Jays trading Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

While unlikely, the Jays should at least be listening on what the trade market for their superstar 1B looks like, especially if they can’t clearly improve the roster for 2024.

Oakland Athletics v Toronto Blue Jays
Oakland Athletics v Toronto Blue Jays / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required) wrote that the Toronto Blue Jays “are getting calls on first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as well as [Bo] Bichette”. There have also been rumours of a blockbuster deal involving Guerrero for Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, even though Alonso will be a free agent after next season. So is there a chance that Vlad is on the trade block?

For a top ten payroll team with World Series aspirations, one that seems to be deeply involved in discussions with the free agent camps of two-time AL MVP Shohei Ohtani and 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, why would they try to move either of their homegrown superstars unless it was for another superstar like Alonso plus prospects?

Indeed, general manager Ross Atkins played it close in his comments about the Ohtani sweepstakes to the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA on Tuesday afternoon. He said, “We have an incredible opportunity here. The city, the country, the support of ownership, the winning environment, the renovations that have occurred.”

He also stated that “[Bichette’s] a really good player, we’re very fortunate to have him and he’s our shortstop moving forward.”

Given the competitive window with Bo and Vlad will close in two years after the 2025 season if they don’t sign long term extensions to stay in Toronto, the urgency to ‘win now’ is real. But Atkins also added that “we cannot lose sight of the future.”

Let’s unpack that last comment some more. As Rosenthal said, it makes little sense to trade either of them while trying to pursue Ohtani and Bellinger, but if they can’t land one of the big free agents, could their plans change?

Remember, only José Berríos, Alek Manoah and Davis Schneider among notable players are signed or under team control through the 2027 season, and Berríos can opt out after 2026.

The competitive window is rapidly closing, and could slam shut after 2025 if they can’t extend some of their arbitration eligible players. Could the Blue Jays extend their competitive window by acquiring top tier young talent for Bichette, Guerrero, Cavan Biggio, Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza, who all have two years left of team control, or Yusei Kikuchi and Danny Jansen, who will be free agents after 2024?

With an aging roster, a poorly ranked farm system, and a likely $200M+ payroll again in 2024 after adding back the projected $58.2M for salaries of arbitration eligible players, this is not a rebuilding team. But with the clock ticking on those key free agent departures, prudent roster management might call for a roster reload with younger players with more team control?

Which brings us to Guerrero: since his MLB debut on April 26, 2019, Vlad’s wRC+ is 130, i.e. 30% better than MLB average. That ranks him 20th in all of baseball, driven by the 15th-most home runs (130), 21st-most runs (377) and 9th-most RBI (404) since then.

The 24-year-old is already a three-time All-Star, finished 2nd behind Shohei Ohtani for AL MVP in 2021, won a Gold Glove at first base in 2022, and has a career OPS of .844, which is 31% better than the MLB average since his call-up.

Notably, those stellar career numbers include his relatively disappointing 2023 stats, where Vlad hit “only” 26 home runs with 94 RBI, while slashing .264/.345/.444/.788. His defence at first also suffered in 2023, with a DRS of -6, which ranked 7th in the AL. His OAA of -13 ranked 37th among qualified 1B.

Those numbers were indeed a drop-off from his MVP campaign in 2021, but given the Blue Jays only have two AL MVPs in their 47-year franchise history, expecting an MVP-like season each and every year from a 24-year old is perhaps unreasonable?

But like Bichette, from a roster management and good governance perspective, if Vlad isn’t going to sign a $300M+ multi-year extension to stay in Toronto, then his trade value with two years of team control and a projected 2024 arbitration salary of $20.4M will never be higher.

The Juan Soto trade as a template?

The Washington Nationals traded three-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the San Diego Padres at the 2022 trade deadline for prospects CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III, Jarlin Susana and James Wood, plus Luke Voit.

Essentially they acquired 2.5 years of control of Soto, who will become a free agent after the upcoming season. Soto also finished 2nd in the 2021 NL MVP voting, and has only four more home runs than Guerrero since Vlad’s debut (134 to 130).

Using that trade as a template, could two years of control of Guerrero return a five-prospect package with multiple MLB ready players like Abrams and Gore? The Blue Jays have multiple needs this offseason, including replacements for Kevin Kiermaier, Matt Chapman and Brandon Belt.

There are certainly multiple top-100 prospects in the Orioles, Pirates, Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers and Nationals farm systems, with top outfield prospects like Jackson Chourio, Dylan Crews, James Wood and Pete Crow-Armstrong. Top third base prospects include Junior Caminero, Noelvi Marte, Brady House and Tyler Black. Or could a rookie like James Outman be included?

As noted in the case for trading Bichette, with the Blue Jays’ competitive window closing, could a trade of either Guerrero or Bichette extend that window depending on the return they bring back in a trade? Both players are under team control for two more seasons, but if they leave in free agency after 2025, the Jays will likely regress. If the front office is unable to extend them, the Jays could be left only with draft pick compensation after 2025, assuming they both reject qualifying offers.

Trading talents like Vlad and Bo would certainly be viewed by a frustrated fan base as waving a white flag, and likely won’t get the club any closer to a World Series championship after a 30-year drought. But if they are just going to walk after the 2025 season with nothing in return but draft pick compensation, from a roster management and player value perspective, the Blue Jays front office needs to conduct due diligence and check on the potential returns for their stars.

That will only become more urgent if the Blue Jays are unable to acquire a top tier free agent like Ohtani or Bellinger, or trade for available MVP-type talents like Soto, Alonso or Alex Bregman, who would all likely be one year rentals. Other names available in trades, like Brewers Corbin Burnes, Willy Adames and Christian Yelich have also been floated around the ‘hot stove’ in a market that doesn’t have a great deal of clear ‘roster improving’ position players available.

So while a retool may be on hold for now until the offseason develops further, just dismissing one out of hand - should the Blue Jays not be able to improve their ball club via free agency and trades - would likely be a long-term mistake, similar to not trading Josh Donaldson ahead of the 2018 season when he still had good trade value.

After regressing from 92 wins in 2022 to 89 wins in 2023, the Blue Jays might need to think more like Tampa Bay and Cleveland, and acquire top tier prospects in return for current stars if it looks like they might regress again in 2024. Otherwise, they could be left with an aging, expensive roster without many MLB-ready prospects after the 2025 season.