January 23, 2021

Blue Jays can open doors by rolling the dice on Guerrero Jr.’s return to 3B

11 min read
Give it, maybe, another week. That’s what Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s, winter ball manager Dave Jauss...

Give it, maybe, another week. That’s what Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s, winter ball manager Dave Jauss told us on Writers Bloc this week when he was asked for his early reviews on Junior’s much-ballyhooed move back to third base.

When you’ve been around as long as Jauss, you know the virtues of patience.

“He is a solid athlete always in the batter’s box and a solid athlete in the field when he’s taking ground balls at third base,” said Jauss, a 63-year-old Chicago native who is in his third stint managing in the Dominican Republic and has coached in the majors with the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and most recently the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has also scouted, served as a minor league instruction coordinator and – you likely knew this was coming – managed in the Montreal Expos prospect-rich development system.

“One week or 10 days … it will probably take that much time. This is a tough league. It’s easier to produce in 162 games than 50 and this year — with 30 games … I’m going to reserve my evaluation other than to say he’s mentally and physically (ready) to go for the 10 remaining regular season games and playoffs.”

Guerrero Jr. is playing for Leones del Escogido, one of the two teams in the capital city of the D.R. and a club that is now run by Moises Alou. Jauss is a family friend of the Alou’s and Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, with whom he stays in contact regarding Guerrero Jr. Winter ball is serious business; neither Jauss nor Alou is doing anybody a solid here. Jauss acknowledges that the Blue Jays are monitoring Guerrero Jr.’s playing time, but was also clear that he’d bat him second, third, fourth or fifth in the lineup and give him playing time as warranted.

Guerrero Jr. embarked on an ambitious weight loss program this off-season. He also made clear early on that, after being bumped out of third base and moved to first during the shortened 2020 season, he wanted to reclaim his former position.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins had an interesting response when asked whether Guerrero Jr. playing third base in winter ball wasn’t, essentially, a bit of a waste if his ultimate destination turns out to be first. After mentioning how it was all something of a balancing act, Atkins tipped his hand when he went on to laud Guerrero Jr.’s defensive skills at third.

“If you have the hands and footwork and arm strength and accuracy and confidence, you can slow the game down,” Atkins said, noting the strength of Guerrero Jr.’s throwing arm has never been in question and that the same quickness of hand that underpins his swing makes him a deft defender. The idea of Guerrero at third base is, Atkins added, “Worth not giving up on.”

It sure isn’t. If Guerrero can play third, it opens up all sorts of platoon/rotation opportunities at first base (a position never short of cheap free-agent options). And if he is the hitter the Blue Jays think he can be, he’ll provide premium offence at a premium position. It’s one less thing to worry about over the next four or so years and allows the organization to use some of its infield prospects to perhaps address pitching or outfield issues.

The only issue I can see is … what if Guerrero Jr. can’t keep the weight off in the next eight or so weeks leading up to free agency? What if it doesn’t work out and the Blue Jays – who let Travis Shaw go — have to pivot to another third baseman in the spring?

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I agree with Atkins: the risk is worth it. I know it’s not the same case or the same player and that winter ball is viewed differently now as a developmental tool than it was back in the day, but …

A tale.

Jose Vidro was a sixth-round pick by the Expos who bounced around from position to position his first 2 1/2 seasons, managing to finish his first full year with a .304 average in 140 games. His reward was being told by manager Felipe Alou – who never seemed entirely sold on the roundish switch-hitter — that he needed to go to winter ball and get his act together at second base.

Vidro did just that, then found out the Expos had signed veteran Mickey Morandini to play second base. Talk about tough love. Challenged, Vidro won the second base job in spring training and started 153 games that season, hitting .340 and making his first of three All-Star teams. Vidro’s career earnings ended up just shy of $50 million.

Look, it took nothing in the way of commitment for Junior to tell the world he wanted to play third base, to post Instagram and Twitter stuff showing him sweating off the pounds. That’s eye-wash if he loses discipline. And I don’t know if Guerrero Jr. will be an all-star at third base or if he’s going to be able to close the value gap with some of his peers like Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto or Ronald Acuna. Hell, I don’t even know if he’ll be the Opening Day third baseman.

But after seeing how he shaved off some pounds in-season – without getting enough credit for it, frankly – and managed to keep body and soul intact to be one of a dozen Major Leaguers to play in every regular-season game, I no longer feel like doubting him …

THE LOOKAHEAD

Stuff to watch …

Manchester City at Manchester United, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET

The Red Devils spotted RB Leipzig a 3-0 lead this week en route to being eliminated from Champions League play and are a tactical mess, yet manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could see his team go four points ahead of their arch-rivals with a win in the Manchester Derby and head into the frenetic Christmas period within sniffing distance of top spot in the Premier League with a game in hand. Man City has won seven away fixtures at Old Trafford, including six in the previous nine seasons. Ole did the double over Pep Guardiola last season, something only two other managers have accomplished against Guardiola in domestic league play since 2008. Not this time, alas …

Toronto Raptors at Charlotte Hornets, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, SPORTSNET

The first of three pre-season games for the Raptors, our first look – likely brief, but who’s picky in a pandemic? – at No. 1 centre Aron Baynes and first round pick Malachi Flynn. Cameos by Hornets’ LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward?

Bayern Munich at Union Berlin, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, SPORTSNET

Newly-minted Lou Marsh Award co-winner Alphonso Davies made a sizzling return mid-week after a six-week absence due to injured ankle ligaments, dominating in 69 minutes of a 2-0 Champions League win over Lokomotiv Moscow, completing 11 of 13 take-ons and making his usual zig-zagging, marauding runs down the wing. With just three matches before the Bundesliga takes its usual winter break, the closeness of the standings might dictate another sizable amount of playing time. If nothing else, Union’s stadium – Stadion An der Alten Forestrei (Stadium by the Old Forester’s House) – is a nice setting for some pre-Christmas cheer …

Stream Bundesliga with Sportsnet NOW
Stream Bundesliga matches as Germany’s top soccer league returns to action for the 2020-21 season, including Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund games.

Anthony Joshua vs. Kubrat Palev, Saturday, apprx. 5:30 p.m. ET

It seems as if Europe is the only place that gives a real rat’s ass about boxing these days, and it seems as if the U.K. is one of the few places with a serious hype machine. Indeed, it would shock the hell out of North Americans to hear how much the sport is part of the daily discourse on talk radio or other media outlets. Joshua will put his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight belts on the line in London against Bulgaria’s Palev, one year and five days after a landslide point victory in a re-match against the fighter to hand him his only career loss — Andy Ruiz Jr. Joshua is the fourth man in heavyweight history to regain his titles in an immediate rematch, joining Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis …

Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET

They’re “just” the 11-1 Steelers now after their 23-17 loss to the Washington Football Team and they have some serious health issues on what was one of the few signature defensive units in the league. Already without inside linebacker Robert Spillane due to knee injury, the Steelers will take on the 9-3 Bills having just placed another linebacker, Vince Williams, on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Spillane was already replacing Devin Bush, injured in Week 6, meaning unless Ulysses Gilbert III comes off the injured reserve list, the inside posts will be manned by Avery Williamson and converted safety Marcus Allen. I don’t think the Bills need to make a statement anymore … but a win would be hella nice …

FAIR OR FOUL

Fair
Assuming it’s pretty much carved in stone that if the Canada-U.S. border remains closed, the Blue Jays will at least start the 2021 season in Dunedin, Fla.

If MLB does indeed start on time with a 162-game schedule, or even if there’s a couple of weeks delay, playing spring baseball outdoors in Buffalo at Sahlen Field will be a no-go – plus, with the Triple-A Bisons back in business there’s no chance a Major League season could be squeezed in at the same time. Dunedin, the site of the Blue Jays spring training complex and the organization’s newly-constructed high performance centre, offers Florida weather and better access to accommodation for families (a number of players already have places in the state).

The fact the Blue Jays will have a low-A farm team located in Dunedin is moot; those games don’t attract many fans and could easily be moved to other minor league complexes in the area. Playing in Florida means the team wouldn’t need to move all its fitness and rehabilitation and support equipment out of Toronto, as was the case when the team played in Buffalo. It would also make for a quick transition back to Toronto in the event the border is opened …

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Foul
Whining that NHL teams have said they plan on purchasing vaccines to inoculate their players, including those on teams playing in Canadian cities at a time when vaccine rollout and production is a point of concern and contention.

Didn’t we go down this road with testing when the NHL teams went into the bubble? With all this fear that wider public testing would be compromised? The optics aren’t great – witness the back-peddling after the initial report, as the NHL seeks to assure everyone it isn’t jumping the line, but let’s be clear: it’s not like those tests purchased for use by NHL players or any other professional athletes would be made free for public use.

Just as it’s illogical to assume the tests given to Sidney Crosby would have ended up being used by the family down the street, so, too, with the vaccine. My guess is the NHL will figure out some way to massage the optics and it will disappear from the public discourse as the tests disappeared.

If you want something to really keep an eye on … what happens if a pro athlete decides he or she doesn’t want to take the vaccine? It beggars belief that there aren’t a few anti-vaxxer athletes out there. Better yet, you might want to ask why so many of the critics of the NHL, NBA, MLB and U.S. colleges return to play are silent when it comes to flying in hockey players from Europe and letting loose the World Junior Hockey Championship in a province that is a COVID-19 hotspot. Motherhood? Vested interests?

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THE ENDGAME

This was a good week for Canadian soccer. Alphonso Davies shared the Lou Marsh Award with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, returned from the first serious injury of his career, hit the ground running (literally) and is a candidate for the Canadian Press’s Male Athlete of the Year; women’s soccer players Kadeisha Buchanan and the redoubtable Christine Sinclair were among the five finalists for the Marsh and will be foremost in the minds of voters for Female Athlete of the Year … and Sinclair (No. 31), Buchanan (36) and national team teammate Ashley Lawrence (70) all earned spots in The Guardian’s list of the Top 100 women’s players in the world.

Forge FC repped the Canadian Premier League remarkably before falling out of CONCACAF Champions League play, spending what seemed like months playing in various Central American countries … and this week, CONCACAF announced the creation of a Women’s Nations League, which will see a more centralized schedule of major summer tournaments leading to the World Cup. Former Canadian national team keeper Katrina LeBlanc, CONCACAF’S head of women’s soccer and CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani deserve credit for shepherding the venture.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and co-hosts Canada’s only national radio soccer show, A Kick In The Grass with Dan Riccio on Monday nights across the Sportsnet Radio Network.

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