The author of 2018’s most memorable Toronto Blue Jays moment never played a regular-season game for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Barring some unforeseen circumstance, he won’t crack the 2019 Opening Day roster either.
Still, the orbit of Canada’s lone baseball team revolves around Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
And all eyes in baseball are facing North, eagerly anticipating the debut of Major League Baseball’s top prospect.
WATCH | Vlad Jr. electrifies Montreal with walk-off homer in 2018 Spring Training finale
The son of the first-ballot Hall of Famer, who turns 20 by Opening Day, will begin to etch his own name into MLB record books this season, though his campaign will be delayed a few weeks due to Toronto’s service-time manipulation.
Under the MLB’s collective bargaining agreement, players require six full seasons of MLB service to reach free agency. A full season is considered 172 days, though any season can last between 182-186 days.
That means, to be safe, the Blue Jays need to hold Guerrero Jr. in triple-A for 15 days in order to prevent his free agency until after 2026. The debut could occur April 12 at home against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Of course, Guerrero Jr. is, by all accounts, ready to join the Blue Jays right now. Really, he was probably ready last year. But the Blue Jays’ cited a few reasons — defence and leadership — for having prevented it thus far.
You can bet those issues will be fixed by April 12.
So, once all the contract manoeuvring is through, what can Blue Jays fans expect on the field?
We can start with what the projection systems say. Fangraphs’ Steamer projection has the Jays phenom ranked as the 14th-most valuable hitter in baseball next season, despite pegging him at just 124 games. His projected 4.7 wins above replacement (WAR) slots right in between four-time all-star Nolan Arenado and 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve.
At .306, Guerrero Jr.’s batting average is estimated to be the second-highest in baseball. Fangraphs isn’t worried about Guerrero Jr.’s defence like the Blue Jays front office is either, and the site referred to his bat as “messianic.”
The Jays’ third baseman of the future is also projected to hit 25 homers and drive in 78 runs.
Meanwhile, PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, is even higher on Guerrero Jr., slating him to hit .311 with a .372 on-base percentage. He’s also forecasted at 21 dingers and 66 RBI, with a more modest 3.2 WAR.
Of course, these analyses are not flawless, though it’s worth pointing out that last season’s top prospect, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr., posted very similar numbers to Guerrero Jr.’s projections.
What’s too bad is that his efforts will likely be wasted.
Canadian national team manager Ernie Whitt serves as a roving instructor for the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor-league system. That means he’s seen Guerrero Jr. in person more than most.
“He’s quite impressive,” said the former Blue Jay. “[Early impressions] are positive. I mean, if there’s anyone that has a can’t-miss sign on him, he does.”
Whitt says he purposely plans his schedule around seeing the Blue Jays’ impressive crop of prospects that include fellow sons of former major-leaguers Bo Bichette, found in the top-10 of many prospect rankings, and Cavan Biggio.
Of course, that’s where the excitement lies in the Blue Jays organization, since the team — along with too many others — is essentially punting on 2019 in an effort to contend by 2021.
After leading the league in attendance for two years in response to their playoff runs, Toronto fell back to the middle of the pack last season.
“I think a winning team will bring [interest] back. It’s always been if you win, the fans will come and it’s always nice to have a couple of young studs, the stars that bring in the younger fans, the younger crowds,” said Whitt.
“There’s no question if Vladdy Jr. comes up and Biggio and Bichette, they come up, that they’re gonna bring a lot of excitement because it’s fun watching them in the minor leagues.”
A new hope
On Valentine’s Day, the Blue Jays begin Spring Training as pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla. For fans, this may once again bring the most excitement of the season as one of few chances to view the Blue Jays future and buy into the front office’s message of hope and patience.
Because in the regular season — especially for the first two or three weeks — there won’t be much to love.
Yes, there will be Marcus Stroman’s entertainment on the mound and a new manager, Charlie Montoyo, ready to experiment and move players around the field more than John Gibbons ever could.
But until Guerrero Jr. finally emerges from the minor league shadows, the season will sit in stasis.
His debut will be met with many eyes, and it will mark the beginning of a new era.
April 12, 2019: Call it Vladentine’s Day.