Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is finally on his way to the big leagues. Everyone is excited to see the phenom who has been the consensus best hitting prospect in baseball for the better part of two years in Toronto at long last. And rightly so.
Yet I cannot help but some trepidation at the same time. Expectations have been ramped up so high — Steamer projects him to hit .306/.370/.516, one of the ten or fifteen best hitters without ever having taken a major league at bat! 80 grade hit tool! — that it is virtually impossible to exceed expectations. In fairness, the other projection systems at FanGraphs are more circumspect: they’ve got him merely as one of the top three dozen hitters in baseball,
The hype as also been amplified by the unprecedented number of top prospects who have debuted in recent years at similarly young ages to Vladito and dominated from Day 1. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr last year, Corey Seager in 2016, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa in 2015. And that doesn’t include the likes of Cody Bellinger, Kris Bryant, Trea Turner and others who were a little older but were impact players right away.
And maybe Vlad Jr. will join that line — I sure hope so, and it’s certainly a reasonable possibility. But baseball is hard, and things rarely go accordingly to plan. At this point, Vlad could turn in a very good rookie season, fall well short of the projected slash line, and it would probably be considered a failure. The word overhyped will be tossed around, that if this is upon whom the franchise has pinned its hopes, the Jays better find a new plan. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he struggles for an extended period (by this I mean a couple weeks), there will be some hyperbolic calls of him being a bust.
Hot take overreaction is going to happen regardless, and it is best ignored. But the point I want to make now, even if it rapidly mooted by Vlad tearing the cover off the ball, is that even a pedestrian rookie season (by the standards of the projections and expectations) would not be indicative that he’s likely to fall short of future stardom.
Miguel Cabrera is a player often used a comparison for Vlad Jr, on the basis on both the prodigious offensive upside as well as coming up as a third basemen with doubts about that lasting. There also parallels in their career trajectories: both were among the most sought international players in their signing classes at 16 and ascended quickly through the minors. Though it’s worth noting that Vlad was even more precocious performance-wise; at 18 Miggy hit a respectable .268/.328/.382 whereas Guerrero crushed low-A and high-A. At 19 Miggy essentially did the same at high-A whereas Guerrero mashed across AA/AAA. It wasn’t until age 20 that Cabrera really broke out in AA.
On June 20, 2003 Cabrera made his major league debut at 20 years, 63 days old. Tomorrow Vlad Jr. will be 20 years, 41 days old. In that 2003 rookie season, Cabrera hit .268/.325/.468 over 346 plate appearances, good for a 106 wRC+. Respectable, especially given his age, putting up very good power but also striking out a lot with a mediocre walk rate.
Over the ensuing 16 years, he’s hit .318/.397/.552 and though he’s now he’s now firmly in the decline phase of his career, Cabrera is a surefire first ballot Hall of Fame inductee in the Class of 2029. But honestly, how many of us would be very disappointed at this point if Vlad only did what Cabrera did in 2003?
Of course, aging curves have changed significantly in even the last 16 years, with young players ready to make an MLB impact more quickly than ever due to factors such as increased athletic specialization and better development/training. Perhaps if Cabrera were coming up today, his performance breakout would have happened at age 18 or 19, and he’d have come up in 2003 and mashed from the get go.
Maybe, but then even Mike Trout — who like Vlad torched the minors on his way up — hit .220/.281/.290 over his first 135 PA when called up in 2011. Which, come to think of it, is halfway between Cabrera’s debut and today; a notion which feels ridiculous but I digress and who can really argue with a calendar anyway.
The point is, there’s often an adjustment period for even the greatest. Baseball has a way of humbling even its immortals. At least for a little while anyway.
I realize that many will be uninterested in thinking or hearing about a cautionary tale at this point when it comes to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I’m a contrarian by nature, and in any event I much prefer to be pleasantly surprised if something goes well or very well — even if that wasn’t an unreasonable base case — than the crushing disappointment if something goes very wrong (see: 2013 Blue Jays). That’s fine, and I’m the first to hope this is completely obviated a month or five months from now. But if things don’t go to plan, do keep this in the back of mind.
So in summary: if Vlad Jr. strikes out twice tomorrow with an 0-fer, go directly to Twitter (do not pass GO, do not collect $200) to record for posterity that he’s a bust so you can say you knew before everyone else; and if he doesn’t hit 25 home runs in 2019 then Shapiro and Atkins should be fired for planning a rebuild around a player who will be average at best.