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New challenges await Guerrero Jr. as top prospect joins Blue Jays

Last Updated Apr 24, 2019 at 9:06 pm EDT

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 27: Toronto Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) gets ready for batting during the St. Louis Cardinals versus the Toronto Blue Jays spring training game on March 27, 2018, at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. destroyed minor-league pitching at every level, improved his defence enough to look like a viable big-league third baseman and kept saying the right things even as injuries and service time games slowed his inevitable arrival to the major-leagues.

Now the hard part begins. When Guerrero Jr. makes his Blue Jays debut Friday against the Oakland Athletics, he’ll face a new challenge: putting it all together against the best competition in the world, not just for a day but week after week and month after month. Every early mistake will be scrutinized, while any early successes will raise expectations even further.

“It’s a big moment for the Toronto Blue Jays,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s the number one prospect in baseball … hopefully he becomes what everyone thinks he can become.”

No pressure, though. Guerrero Jr. finished up his stint at triple-A by going two for five with an opposite-field home run Wednesday. Through 33 plate appearances at the highest level of the minors, he has a .367 average with a 1.124 OPS.

But really that’s hardly surprising for Guerrero Jr., the top prospect in the minors. Fair or not, that level of offence was expected of him at triple-A. It’s perhaps equally significant that on Wednesday he played in three consecutive games for the first time since returning to action from the oblique issue that sidelined him this spring.

Because Guerrero Jr. has been injured twice in the last calendar year, his conditioning remains a variable worth watching as he arrives in Toronto. Knee and oblique issues sidelined him for weeks at a time, slowing his development. That means the Blue Jays will monitor his workload carefully, mixing in regular days off to guard against fatigue.

“I honestly think he’s going to do well,” Montoyo said. “But whatever happens we have to be patient. Defensively, offensively. Because he’s 20-years-old.”

Right, his defence. On the field, Guerrero Jr.’s glove remains a critical variable for the Blue Jays. Long-term, they gain massive value if Guerrero Jr. can stay at third base. If that happens, the team keeps first base available for another offence-first player and designated hitter stays open for a rotating cast.

Can Guerrero Jr. play third in the big-leagues right now? Sure–the Blue Jays have already discussed how they’ll position him on various shifts. But while the likes of Kris Bryant and Alex Bregman completed their defensive development in college and the minors, Guerrero Jr.’s will finish on a big-league field. Third base coach Luis Rivera likely has some early afternoon infield sessions in his future.

With questions still lingering around Guerrero Jr.’s conditioning and defence, some of his development will have to happen at the major-league level. That’s not necessarily ideal, but the Blue Jays are still in a great spot here with the most exciting prospect in baseball about to join their lineup. And make no mistake: from a hitting standpoint, he’s ready to contribute right now.

“I think so,” Montoyo agreed. “I think he’ll come here and do well, for sure.”

The smoothest transitions happen when players are ready in all facets of the game. In this case, Guerrero’s bat outpaces the rest, so we’ll likely see occasional mistakes on the field once he does arrive. Behind the scenes, the Blue Jays’ strength coaches and nutritionists will work to keep him physically ready for the challenge of a long season.

Considering all those variables, Guerrero Jr.’s arrival in Toronto won’t be a coronation. It’ll be the beginning of a new set of challenges, some of which he has more experience with than others. How Guerrero Jr. responds will determine his own path ahead as a big-leaguer while impacting the Blue Jays’ direction as much as any one player can.

Once Guerrero Jr. arrives in Toronto, he’ll have a day to get his bearings in his new home ballpark. Maybe he’ll set up his locker or get settled in a hotel room. At some point along the way, he’ll meet with his manager and when he does the message will be simple.

“Just relax and play,” Montoyo will say. “Do your best. And he will.”