Prospect Heat Check: Is MLB ready for a 19-year-old hitting prodigy?

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. celebrates an exhibition home run against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/stl" data-ylk="slk:St. Louis Cardinals">St. Louis Cardinals</a> on March 27, 2018, in Montreal. (AP)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. celebrates an exhibition home run against the St. Louis Cardinals on March 27, 2018, in Montreal. (AP)

The case for the Toronto Blue Jays to call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. right now, less than two months after his 19th birthday, is fairly straightforward and simple. Teams that aspire to win baseball games should field their best nine players every day. The Blue Jays are trying to win. Guerrero, according to evaluators who have seen him, would be one of their best nine. Ergo, forget age, forget service time, forget it all and just call the kid up so the baseball world can see something so full of splendor.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football leagues are open: Sign up now for free]

Unfortunately, the game does not work like this, and so we’re left to ogle from afar the terror Guerrero is inflicting on Double-A pitchers. After another two-hit game Monday, Guerrero was hitting .380/.442/.582. He had just 10 strikeouts in 79 at-bats, matched by 10 walks. And a pair of longtime scouts who have seen him in recent weeks agreed when asked about Guerrero in a Blue Jays uniform.

“He’s ready,” one said.

“He’d hit in the big leagues today,” the other said.

Because it is the furthest thing from Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro’s style to summon a cornerstone-type player without taking into account service-time considerations, the prospect of Guerrero debuting in the big leagues on the cusp of his father’s Hall of Fame induction is unlikely. Still, there is a case to be made that it could work.

Let’s first acknowledge the obvious: It would start his service clock earlier than any player since Alex Rodriguez arrived nearly a quarter-century ago. At his July 8, 1994, debut, A-Rod was 18 years, 346 days old. Today, Vlad Jr. is 19 years, 46 days – younger than Adrian Beltre (19.078), Andruw Jones (19.114), Ken Griffey Jr. (19.133), Bryce Harper (19.195), Pudge Rodriguez (19.205) or Mike Trout (19.335) at theirs. Understandably, the Blue Jays do not want to run the risk of losing him to free agency in his prime.

(Yes, we’re talking about a guy’s free agency before his major league debut. Why? Because front offices do, too, all the time.)

The question, then, becomes: Can he add enough value today to make up for the time down the road? This is where the argument strengthens. With Josh Donaldson returning soon from the disabled list, he’s locked in at third base. The only other position that makes sense for Guerrero would be designated hitter, and wouldn’t you know, the Blue Jays’ DH is currently hitting .160/.259/.240.

Now, Kendrys Morales does know something about slow starts. In April 2016, he didn’t look anything like a major leaguer. By the end of the season, he’d hit well enough to fetch a three-year, $33 million deal from Toronto. Morales is 34 these days, and as much as the Blue Jays love him in the clubhouse, a DH with a sub-.700 OPS, let alone the sub-.500 that Morales currently carries, is a nonstarter. Even if Morales is owed the rest of his $11 million salary this year and $12 million next year, that is sunk cost, and keeping him in the lineup simply because he’s making good money is anathema to winning.

Perhaps it’s wrong to assume Guerrero will hit and hit immediately. Baseball is hard. Major League Baseball is really hard. Dropping a 19-year-old into the American League East is downright rude. The possibility exists that failure and the feelings it can create linger. And yet treating Guerrero as simply a 19-year-old instead of what he is – a 19-year-old with a Hall of Fame pedigree whose bat-to-ball skills are unparalleled in the minor leagues and whose natural feel for hitting may well be, too – underplays the nature of his readiness.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. appears to be a special hitter. (AP)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. appears to be a special hitter. (AP)

If the Blue Jays need one last thing to fully sell them on the idea, consider this: However much extra money Guerrero makes because he would enter the arbitration system one year early will more than be made up for by the boost in attendance his arrival would provide. Fans in Canada are jonesing for Vlad Jr. a lot more than they are for the current incarnation of this team. Last April, the average crowd at Rogers Centre was 37,990. This year: 25,445. That’s more than 12,500 fans per game, just up and gone.

Toronto is 16-12 and has played remarkably well considering Donaldson missed more than half its games with a bum shoulder and Marcus Stroman has a free-telephone-line ERA (8.88). The AL playoff race is going to be perilously close, with New York and Boston thriving in the East and Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle laying their claims out West. The Blue Jays are in that group. And chances are they’ll only be better if they buck conventional wisdom and call up the sweetest-swinging kid the game has seen in years.

***

Vlad Jr. is the best prospect in baseball. Here, in the first Prospect Heat Check of the year, are 20 other names to remember – some top prospects, some ascendant, some struggling, all compelling.

Colton Welker, 3B, Rockies (A+) and Jesus Luzardo, SP, A’s (AA): Individually, they’re thriving. Together, they’re one of the best stories of the early minor league season. Welker and Luzardo were teammates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where they won a high school national championship. Now they’re two of the most underappreciated players in the minor leagues. Welker, 20, is hitting .322/.430/.529, which would mark the second consecutive season he slashed 3/4/5. He was the key to Stoneman Douglas’ title in 2016 after Luzardo blew out his elbow early in the season.

Once thought to be a top-10 pick, Luzardo fell to the third round, where the Nationals snatched him up. Oakland acquired him in the Sean Doolittle-Ryan Madson deal last season, jumped him from short-season ball to high-A to start the year and then sent him to Double-A after three dominant starts. Luzardo is the only 20-year-old there, which doesn’t surprise Welker. “He’s so mature for his age,” Welker said. “His stuff is gonna play at every level.”

Juan Soto, OF, Nationals (A+): After running roughshod through the South Atlantic League during a 15-game tear, Soto, who will be 19 all season, earned a promotion and has continued hitting in high-A. Limited to 32 games by injuries last year, the left-handed-hitting Soto is one of the purest bats in the minor leagues and boasts tremendous plate discipline to boot, with a 19-to-15 walk-to-strikeout ratio at the heart of his .341/.457/.718 line. Between him and Victor Robles, the Nationals’ long-term outfield is in fine hands, even if it doesn’t wind up including Bryce Harper.

Brendan McKay, 1B/SP, Rays (A): From the start, the plan was to ease McKay into the minor leagues’ most intriguing two-way experiment with an assignment in the Midwest League, then after a month jump him to high-A. McKay has earned his coming promotion on both sides. He is dominating as a left-handed pitcher, with 24 strikeouts and one walk in 14 innings, and his .474 on-base percentage and 16-to-7 walk-to-strikeout ratio are among the minor leagues’ best. Though the power still hasn’t arrived, McKay possesses plenty, and the sense is that it will show up in-game sooner than later.

Mike Soroka was called up by the Atlanta Braves. (AP)
Mike Soroka was called up by the Atlanta Braves. (AP)

Mike Soroka, SP, Braves (MLB): It’s impressive enough that Luzardo is in Double-A at 20. What, then, can you say about Soroka, who was promoted to start Tuesday night for Atlanta in the major leagues at the same age? For all the phenomenal pitching talent the Braves have hoarded, Soroka holds the distinction as the surest thing. He may not have the upside of a Joey Wentz or Kyle Wright. He does have a track record of eating innings, inducing ground balls and not issuing walks. At worst, he’s a mid-rotation arm, and that’s a hell of a compliment.

Bryse Wilson, SP, Atlanta (A+): Overshadowed by Soroka and Wentz and Wright (and Ian Anderson and Luiz Gohara and Kolby Allard and Max Fried and Touki Toussaint), the 20-year-old Wilson is the most under-the-radar of the Braves’ pitchers. He doesn’t exactly look the part, giving off a middle-linebacker feel at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. One run in 20 innings thus far only builds on last season, when he was in a rotation with Wentz and Anderson and finished with a better ERA than both.

Daulton Varsho, C, Diamondbacks (A+): Breakout alert. Varsho has homered in back-to-back games and by the end of the season may be in the discussion of the best catching prospects in baseball. The 21-year-old – son of former big league outfielder Gary Varsho, named after his Phillies teammate Darren Daulton – is freakishly athletic for a catcher. His receiving needs work and his arm will never be a cannon, but Arizona believes it’s plenty to stick behind the plate. His bat should more than make up for his deficiencies there anyway.

Yennsy Diaz, SP, Blue Jays (A): An out-of-nowhere breakout, Diaz has been almost literally unhittable. In 28 2/3 innings, the right-hander’s opponents have six hits. That’s 6 for 95. Their line against Diaz: .063/.183/.105. Yes, the 21-year-old is repeating his time in the Midwest League, and he’s due a promotion soon, but still: an .063 batting average and 0.31 ERA after a month is awfully impressive no matter the level.

Corbin Martin, SP, Astros (A+): Speaking of guys who don’t give up hits or runs, Martin is the last starter in the minors with an ERA of 0.00. A second-round pick out of Texas A&M last year, the 22-year-old right-hander is now at 19 innings without allowing an earned run. He’s not Forrest Whitley, the Astros’ top prospect serving a PED suspension, but he’s plenty good in a system still filled with future major leaguers. Among outfielder Kyle Tucker – who could be up this year – hulking first baseman Yordan Alvarez and breakout pitcher Josh James, the Astros’ development system keeps on churning.

Mickey Moniak, OF, Phillies (A+): Look, it is still too early to use the B-word. Moniak turns 20 this month, he’s got fewer than 1,000 minor league plate appearances and some guys just take longer than others to develop. That said: eek. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft is hitting .213/.228/.258. He has shown no signs of plate discipline or power. It’s about as ignominious of a start as there has been from someone who went 1-1.

Blake Rutherford, OF, White Sox (A+): The Yankees stole Rutherford after he dropped in the 2016 draft and sent him to Chicago last season in the Tommy Kahnle-David Robertson trade. While Rutherford still hasn’t come into his power, scouts adore his left-handed swing and see him as the player the Phillies had hoped Moniak might be.

Fernando Tatis Jr. has had some struggles in Double-A. (AP)
Fernando Tatis Jr. has had some struggles in Double-A. (AP)

Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres (AA): Nobody is as aggressive with assignments as San Diego, and after what Tatis did last year, the Texas League seemed warranted, even for someone who will be 19 for the entire season. Development officials see Double-A as the true proving ground, and Tatis is showing he needs more seasoning. He has struck out 34 times in 96 at-bats and is slashing .177/.231/.333. Tatis is going to be a star. He’s just not Vlad Jr.

Dane Dunning, SP, White Sox (AA): Dunning is following the same pattern as last season. Destroy a level for four starts, get a promotion to an age-appropriate level and continue working toward the major leagues. The 23-year-old doesn’t have the upside of Michael Kopech or Alec Hansen, but he projects as a back-of-the-rotation type who can rack up strikeouts.

Juan Yepez, 3B, Cardinals (A): When the Cardinals dealt Matt Adams to Atlanta last season, the lone return was Yepez, a right-handed-hitting infielder who hadn’t shown much of anything over three years in pro ball. St. Louis obviously saw something, and it is more than manifesting itself this year, as Yepez has been one of the best hitters in the minor leagues over the first month, slashing .438/.494/.630. Yes, he’s in his third year at this level and needs a promotion, and, yes, at 20, he’s still a couple years off, but the Cardinals look like they got a keeper for Adams after all.

Jeisson Rosario, OF, Padres (A): In the last year before the new collective-bargaining agreement strangled international spending, the Padres laid out more than $80 million to fortify their farm system. The fruits of the spree are showing in arguably the deepest group of prospects in baseball, and Rosario, who signed for $1.8 million, is one of four 18-year-olds playing on the Padres’ low-A team in Fort Wayne. His .308/.477/.400 line shows plate discipline well beyond his years, though one scout said he’s not even the best 18-year-old outfielder on his team. That honor, the scout said, belongs to Tirso Ornelas.

Josh Naylor, 1B, Padres (AA): Best known for an odd stabbing incident with a former teammate, Naylor is either going to be one whale of a trade chip or the next Kyle Schwarber. Because with Eric Hosmer entrenched at first for San Diego, there is no room for him, and yet, as a 20-year-old hitting .379/.450/.674 with seven home runs and a 13-to-12 walk-to-strikeout ratio, he may be too good to keep away from the big leagues. “He’s always had the tools to hit,” one scout who saw him recently said. “The at-bats are better. Swinging at strikes.”

Peter Alonso, 1B, Mets (AA): With six multi-hit games during his current eight-game hitting streak, Alonso has raised his season line to .408/.505/.776 and given Mets fans a new prospect over whom they can froth. Alonso is plodding and limited defensively – and that is all well and good, because he can hit, for power and average, and is going to make life considerably tougher for Dom Smith when it comes to the future of Mets first-base at-bats.

Shane Bieber, SP, Indians (AA) : Bieber finally walked a guy this week. He had gone 26 innings without issuing one, continuing a most impressive track record: Since signing with the Indians as a fourth-round pick out of UC Santa Barbara, Bieber has walked just 13 hitters in 228 ⅓ innings. Between him and Eli Morgan in low-A, the Indians have two of the best control artists who still punch dudes out. Their respective 1.16 and 1.37 ERAs prove that.

Tony Santillan, SP, Reds (A+): For a couple years now, the Reds have awaited this version of Santillan. His fastball lives in the mid-to-high 90s, his slider is a beast and he can turn over a changeup, too. Three-pitch starters with control and premium stuff are top prospects, and Santillan, a big 21-year-old right-hander, is on his way. It helps that he’s throwing in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but a 0.64 ERA is a 0.64 ERA, and him ending the year in Double-A and on the cusp of the big leagues isn’t far-fetched.

Jabari Blash, OF, Angels (AAA): It’s rather stunning that Blash isn’t plying his trade in Japan, mashing home runs and making a few million dollars a year, like so many of his forbears. Blash, 29, is a Quadruple-A player – someone who’s incredible at Triple-A and can’t hit in the major leagues. His lifetime line in the big leagues: .200/.323/.336. It shows the divide between the world’s best pitching and that at Triple-A, where Blash is hitting .362/.463/.884 with nine home runs this year. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Blash is, and always was, a specimen. It’s what made him so frustrating to Seattle and San Diego, which hoped he would develop into something more. Blash may just be what he is, and that’s OK. In the baseball world, whether here or Asia, there’s always a place for a massive man who can hit balls exceedingly far.

More from Yahoo Sports:
Trump comments hurt North American World Cup bid
Marlins rookie throws 2018’s fastest pitch
Baseball legend apologizes for distasteful #MeToo comments
Brady appears to change tune on anthem kneeling

What to read next

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes