Image credit: (Photo by Brian Westerholt)
Every team wants to build a pipeline of homegrown talent to help the major league club.
Players you draft or sign as international free agents, develop in your farm system and graduate to the major league level not only help you win games, but their success also has a meaningful impact for the entire scouting and player development staff.
With Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays have a homegrown player with superstar potential, a player who just had one of the best minor league seasons ever for a teenage hitter en route to winning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
Guerrero is a homegrown player in every sense of the term, not just because he’s on the verge of hitting in the middle of Toronto’s lineup after signing with the Blue Jays for $3.9 million when he was 16 just three years ago. When Guerrero gets to Toronto next season, he will be going back to Canada, the country where he was born, where his Hall of Fame father burst on to the major league stage, and where he spent considerable time as a kid tagging along with his dad. Guerrero grew up in the Dominican Republic, playing in his family’s league and coached by his uncle, Wilton, in the Guerrero family academy, a program that has produced several other Guerreros in professional baseball.
Oh—and there are more on the way.
A big part of international scouting is getting in on players early. Not just to beat other teams to the punch, but to build a large sample size (or “history” in the scouting vernacular) of information to make decisions about a player.
In 2015, getting in early on a player meant seeing him at 13 or 14 years old. But Vladdy Jr. was different. When Vladimir Guerrero Sr. started his career with the Expos, Luciano del Rosario was one of the team’s bat boys. Senior took it upon del Rosario to help take care of Junior, and he built a close relationship with the family.
By the time Vladdy Jr. was old enough to start working out for major league clubs, del Rosario (known as “Negron”) had become Toronto’s area scout responsible for covering the south in the Dominican Republic. When it came to getting to know Vladdy Jr.’s makeup off the field, the Blue Jays had a thorough book.
Vladimir Sr.’s brother, Wilton Guerrero, played eight major league seasons from 1996-2004, mostly with the Dodgers and Montreal Expos, moving around the diamond but with the majority of his playing time coming at second base. In his post-playing days, Guerrero, now 43, works as a trainer running a program in the town of Don Gregorio in the Dominican Republic.
Separate from the academy, the Guerrero family also runs a local league, the Guerrero Brothers league. When Vladdy Jr. was six, Wilton took him to play in the league.
“Sometimes, he played against kids his age, but sometimes he would play against older people,” Wilton said. “When he was 12 years old, he faced kids who were 15, 17 years old. At 13, he would play against people who were 25.”
When Vladdy Jr. was 11, he started training in Wilton’s program.
“I saw his swing,” Wilton said, “and I said, ‘He’s going to be like his father.’ He swings hard all the time. Every pitch. No matter what you throw, he swings hard. You can throw everything. You might get him out one time, but you’re not going to get him out with the same pitch twice. He has the ability to hit the ball hard all the time. He has the power and he has the eye. His dad was the same way—no matter what you throw, he can hit every pitch. The only thing is, Junior is a little bit more selective at the plate.”
A little bit.
Those two themes—always playing against more advanced competition and showing a mature hitting approach with sharp strike-zone awareness—have been central to Guerrero’s career path. The Blue Jays skipping him over two levels to make his pro debut in the Rookie-level Appalachian League as a 17-year-old didn’t faze him. Neither did going to Double-A as a 19-year-old or the in-season promotion to Triple-A, where he walked more than he struck out.
“I remember his father used to take him to play against grown men,” said Ismael Cruz, who was in charge of international scouting for the Blue Jays at the time and now runs the Dodgers’ international department. “He would take him at 14 and play against guys 25 and over. He loves the challenge. He never wanted to play with his peers—he was always playing ahead of his time. That helped him. It helped him see velocity, it helped him see breaking balls. I’ve never seen a J2 guy who liked hitting breaking balls more than fastballs. That’s one thing I remember clearly, that he was waiting for that breaking ball. His plate discipline was very good.”
Cruz first saw Guerrero when he was 14. Guerrero had a heavyset body type that usually turns off scouts. He was an outfielder, with below-average speed and arm strength that pointed to either left field or first base down the road, but Guerrero’s hitting ability and power were apparent right away.
“They have a house, like a four-story house behind left field,” Cruz said. “The field is like 300 feet to left field, but this is a 14, 15-year-old kid hitting the fourth floor of that house. He was really enjoying it, too. Everyone would stop to see him hit.”
To sign Guerrero, though, the Blue Jays would have to use their whole budget and a little extra, going over their pool to trigger a penalty of not being able to sign anyone for more than $300,000 the following year. Given not just the size of the bonus but the fact that the Blue Jays were considering using all of their pool money on one player, the Blue Jays built extensive scouting history on Guerrero. That meant building an extensive history of at-bats against pro-level pitchers they logged on him, which Cruz estimates was close to 100. After one particularly long hitting session, Guerrero even asked for batting gloves, which, like his father, he didn’t wear as an amateur. It also meant an extensive number of high-ranking club officials who went in to see him, including Latin American director Sandy Rosario, pro scouting director Perry Minasian, assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish and GM Alex Anthopoulos.
Guerrero had big power, but there were plenty of other amateur hitters who could knock the ball over the fence in batting practice. Guerrero’s ability to hit in games, control the strike zone and his mental approach separated him.
“He studied pitchers,” Cruz said. “At 15, he had a plan going into the box. He would tell us, ‘This guy uses this pitch to go for a strikeout. I want to make him believe he’s got me on the first breaking ball, then get him on the second one.’ Stuff you don’t hear from a 15-year-old kid.”
To this day, Guerrero continues to toy with pitchers born a decade before him, getting pitched around as a 19-year-old just like he did when he was a kid playing against grown men. Now the Guerreros have their own family pipeline ready to follow in the footsteps of Vladimir Sr. and Wilton. The Reds just called up Junior’s cousin, outfielder Gabriel Guerrero. Two other cousins—Mets infielder Gregory Guerrero and White Sox outfielder Josue Guerrero—both signed for more than $1 million in recent years. Merlin Martinez, Wilton’s nephew, is a 2020 prospect. And Vladdy Jr. has three younger brothers—two 11 years old, one seven years old—who play baseball.
But the next big thing is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a potential homegrown superstar, for the Blue Jays and the Guerrero family.