Toolshed: Guerrero out to make his own name

Jays' top prospect showing advanced tools, approach in Lansing

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has 10 home runs in 70 career games in the Minor Leagues. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 14, 2017 10:30 AM ET

117 mph.

Lansing hitting coach Donnie Murphy doesn't pay too much attention to all the data he's given -- just make consistent, hard contact. Don't worry if it's caught. Don't fret over exit velocity. If players focus on hard contact, everything else will take care of itself. Ball speed off the bat can be a tool he uses for evaluation, but it doesn't need to dominate the conversation.

This one caught his eye.

Playing in his first game at Lansing's Cooley Law School Stadium, Blue Jays' top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ripped a 2-1 fastball on the inside corner from Great Lakes righty Vinny Santarsiero into left field for a double that one-hopped the wall. The ball got to the fence so quickly, Murphy recalled, that Guerrero -- who is beginning his first full season at the age of 18 -- was almost caught taking the extra base.

"Just the sound of the bat is so different from anyone else here," Murphy said. "It's like a piece of wood snapping. That's what it sounds like. It's unbelievable."

The Lugnuts coach had to check Trackman after the game to see if the data backed up his eyes. That's when he saw 117 mph. According to Statcast, only two players have produced exit velocities higher than that this season -- Eric Hosmer at 118.1 mph on April 5 and Aaron Judge at 117.2 on April 10. Minor League data isn't public; it's tracked and stored by the organizations as another tool to understand prospect performance. 

In this case, it's helping confirm what Murphy, the Lugnuts and Blue Jays have begun to learn -- Guerrero has a chance to live up to the massive hype.

Signed by Toronto for $3.9 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, Guerrero first caught the attention of the baseball community for being the son of the nine-time All-Star and 2004 American League MVP. Those who had seen him play, however, knew he was more than just a familiar name. MLB.com ranked him as the No. 7 international prospect in 2015, giving him above-average grades for his hit and power tools but noting that his six-foot, 220-pound frame could keep him from following his father to the outfield.

The Blue Jays wasted no time pushing the right-handed slugger, placing him in the Rookie-level Appalachian League at the age of 17 and moving him to third base, skipping over the complex circuits in both the Dominican Republic and Gulf Coast League. As the youngest player in the circuit, Guerrero held his own with a .271/.359/.449 line, eight homers and 46 RBIs in 62 games with Bluefield. He was named an Appy League post-season and MiLB.com Organization All-Star for his efforts. MLB.com not only named him Toronto's top prospect this offseason but moved him into the top 100 for the first time, marking him at No. 31.

"It's good he got his feet wet," Murphy said about Guerrero's first season. "I think he needed to see what it's all about over here before he could play a full season. Playing in 70-plus games in the summer can be a big educational experience for these kids. I think he thought, 'Wow, there are a lot of ups and downs,' because he had never really dealt with it before."

Still, it was clear Guerrero had little else to prove in a shorter season and that Toronto planned to push the teenager to the Midwest League for a full year. He's answered the call so far. The second-youngest player in his circuit behind only Fort Wayne 17-year-old infielder Eguy Rosario, Guerrero has gone 8-for-25 (.320) with two homers, a double and four RBIs in his first eight games.

What's perhaps most impressive about his homers is that both have been opposite-field shots -- the first coming in his season debut on April 7 and the other going off the scoreboard in right-center at Bowling Green Ballpark on Wednesday. 

"He knows what pitchers are trying to do against him," Murphy said. "He's not going to get a fastball every time. With his type of power, sometimes guys can get a little pull-happy and try to send it over the fence that way. That'll happen a lot with 18-year-olds who are just learning and sometimes they get lucky. Not him. ... If they come in, he pulls. If it's beyond middle, he'll go the other way. When he generates his power, it can go either way, so long as he's prepared."

Video: Top Jays prospect Guerrero hits first MWL blast

That preparation goes beyond just putting Guerrero's power into play. The Lugnuts third baseman has walked seven times in 32 plate appearances (or 21.9 percent) over the season's first week and has struck out only four times in that span. That's extreme in a small sample, but it's not out of the blue. Guerrero ranked ninth in the Appalachian League in 2016 with a 12 percent walk rate and placed fourth with a BB/K ratio of 0.94. 

This is not your average case of a free-swinging power hitter. While his father was known to chase balls close to the zone, remember that the former Expos and Angels star also made a ton of contact, striking out in just 10.9 percent of his career plate appearances while taking walks in 8.1 percent.

Good eye coordination seems to run in the family.

"Obviously, being around his dad, who is a Hall of Famer in my book, and a whole bunch of big leaguers his whole life, he probably picked some things up about approach," Murphy said. "If I had to guess, that'd be it. But you can see he picks up on how they pitch him. It's usually hard stuff in, soft away. He's paying attention. When the guys are on base ahead of him, he knows the pitcher isn't going to give him anything. But he's not going to give away the at-bat either."

If there's something that's going to hold Guerrero back from a quick ascent through the Minors, it'll be his development at the hot corner. Not the most fleet of foot given his size, it was clear early on that he wouldn't follow his father's footsteps to the outfield. So beyond the move stateside to pro ball, he also had to take on a transition to a new position. It hasn't been the smoothest transition yet with MLB.com's grading Guerrero's glove at 45 on the 20-80 scale, but he has shown an above-average arm. Given his bat, all the Blue Jay will need for him is to be average at third, and he'll still provide plenty of value as he climbs the chain.

According to Murphy, Guerrero is hitting his benchmarks. 

"Within the last year, he's gotten a lot better," said the Lansing coach. "The footwork has improved. He's understanding the position and thinking ahead, not only to the next play but what may come after that. But yeah more than anything, the footwork was rough, but he's put in the work. I saw him in Spring Training first and by [the instructional league], he was totally different. It's starting to pay off."

Guerrero remains years away from following his father to the big leagues, but if he can keep showing plus power with a good eye and become an adequate defender, there are reasons to believe it might not be just the balls off his bat that move quickly in the years to come.

"He might be the youngest guy here, but he's a leader," Murphy said. "The guys feed off him. I think he goes and shows his talent and what he's capable of every day, from games to workouts, and everyone kind of radiates to it. It's fun to see from a young kid."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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