BALTIMORE — Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s face still carries the wide eyes and soft features of youth. At 20, and not yet two months into his career as a Toronto Blue Jay, he is still learning big-league pitching, still acclimating to a grind he’s never experienced, still seeing the inside of some stadiums for the first time.
Yet since baseball’s most celebrated prospect in nearly a decade made his debut, he’s convinced his teammates and coaches that he’s impervious to the pressures and expectations of life in the bigs, possessing a baseball soul far more seasoned than the spare numbers on his statistical line.
“None of this scares him,” says Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak. “None of this is new to him.”
And good thing, as the conditions of his arrival have been less than optimal.
Guerrero’s lightning-strike rise through the minor leagues sent expectations soaring and anticipation of his arrival rivaling that of Bryce Harper some seven years earlier.
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That the Blue Jays planned to delay his debut in order to harvest an extra year of service time made him a bullet-point sports talk subject before so much as taking a big league at-bat. When he finally did arrive, to a raucous crowd of 29,000 that gained early entry to Rogers Centre so they could see him take batting practice, the Jays were not the same club that he left at the end of spring training.
Center fielder Kevin Pillar was gone, traded in the season’s first week to San Francisco. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales was also shipped out to Oakland as the season began.
Guerrero now bats second for a club expected to be bad, but in reality is worse than imagined.
Entering Thursday, the Blue Jays are 24-43, having lost more games than any major league club besides Baltimore and Kansas City. While Guerrero and fellow major league legacies Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette have long provided hope for a re-tooling club, it’s apparent the early years will be bumpy.
And this is where being the son of a Hall of Famer, of growing up around clubhouses and behind batting cages and in the fog of major league business, truly pays off. To possess the confidence of an All-Star, yet the prudence of knowing nothing is permanent.
“This is baseball – one day you’re here, the next day you’re on the other team,” Guerrero, through an interpreter, tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s something I can’t control.
“When the moment comes for us to win, we’re going to win. We’re going out every day to try to win and that’s the only thing we can do right now.”
Guerrero Jr. made his MLB debut on April 26. (Photo: Mitch Stringer, USA TODAY Sports)
While not yet running away with American League Rookie of the Year honors, Guerrero has acquitted himself well, his .769 OPS a tick above league average. It took him 14 games and 48 at-bats to hit a home run, but he then hit five over his next eight games.
He was upbraided by manager Charlie Montoyo last weekend for a pair of sequences that were less than max effort, but Guerrero handled it with aplomb.
The Blue Jays, in general, are a green group. Smoak and second baseman Eric Sogard – who joined the big club April 16 – are the only regulars north of 30.
Biggio, 24, debuted on May 24, and first baseman Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 25, is in his first full big-league season.
“When I was in Texas, I was the young guy,” says Smoak, who debuted in 2010 on a Rangers club that featured Guerrero’s father. “We had Vladdy Sr., we had Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz. That team went on to the World Series.
“It was easier, I felt, for me to just try to be a piece of what they already had.”
In Toronto, there is little gravitas and just one former All-Star – Smoak’s 2017 nod – among position players. While Guerrero sportingly says he doesn’t want to leave anyone out when discussing veteran influences, shortstop Freddy Galvis, 29, has emerged as Guerrero’s primary sounding board.
At the same time, the Blue Jays are confident a plug-and-play approach will work with Guerrero.
“The beautiful thing about this kid is he knows what he’s doing,” says Montoyo, in his first year as a major league manager. “For a 20-year-old, I’m impressed with how cool and collected he is, with all the press and everything else, he just plays the game and has fun.
“He doesn’t really need a veteran next to him. That would help – if you had a Nelson Cruz next to him. Galvis is good for him. That’s a compliment to Galvis. But a compliment to Vlad is that he doesn’t really need him. He’s confident and I’m really impressed with that.”
Galvis perceives Guerrero and Biggio – who has six hits in his first 41 at-bats – possess an extra sense thanks to their upbringing.
“That’s what you saw in your house,” he says. “That’s what you saw your whole life. The game becomes a little bit easier for those guys.”
Well, easy might be a bit strong. Guerrero is batting .255, and his .321 on-base percentage is well off his other-worldly mark of .414 over four seasons in the minor leagues.
Montoyo’s eyes widen, though, when discussing Guerrero’s future. Nothing in these first six weeks has dampened the expectation No. 27 will be anything less than great.
“He’s learning little by little that it’s the big leagues, and he’s not just going to come here and hit .300,” says Montoyo. “He will be – I’ll tell you that right now – but he’s learning the league, how fast the pitching is.
“He’s realizing, ‘OK, I have to have my A game against these guys,’ and he will get it. The sky’s the limit with this kid.”
Guerrero says being himself – and knowing pitchers are far more aware of his exploits compared to other rookies – is no burden. He remains impressed with the compete level of his teammates, even as losses mount.
That may be the defining characteristic of this club, and perhaps the next. No one expects that to define Guerrero, however.
“It’s challenging because right now we’re losing games,” says Montoyo. “That puts pressure not only on him but everyone else to produce when they go to the plate.
“To his credit, he stays within himself. Which is pretty impressive for a 20-year-old.”
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