Article Written by Ryan Grosman (@RyanGrosman)
The Toronto Blue Jays’ up and mostly down 2019 season has come to a close. So naturally the topic of concern for most Jays fans is, what will this team look like in 2020?
For me, the season begins with budding superstar and (hopefully) future franchise cornerstone, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., playing first base/DH.
But it’s not for the reasons you may think.
Since day 1, Vlad Jr.’s weight has been a huge concern among media and fans. Is he suited for third base? Can he play the position full time at his current weight? I think his weight issues have been severely overblown. It’s not like he’s Pablo Sandoval out there, breaking belts instead of bats.
The topic of his weight was only exasperated at the end of the season by his lost in translation comment that he’s never lifted weights. Putting aside the fact that this was a gross misunderstanding that got stupidly overblown, what the hell does lifting weights have to do with losing weight?
Could he stand to lose a few pounds? Maybe. But it’s less about his weight and more about the endurance to make it through an entire MLB season. He clearly ran out of gas in September. But this being the longest season of his pro career, it’s somewhat understandable. So going into this off-season, stamina should be a big focus.
Besides, how much weight can Vlad Jr. actually lose? This is his body type. This is who he is. Tinkering with his body might actually do more harm than good.
Consider the case of New York Yankees hurler C.C. Sabathia. No matter how well he was pitching or how explosive his fastball was, his weight was always an issue. Then one season he dropped a considerable amount of weight and suddenly he became less effective.
Now, there could’ve been other factors at play, like age or arm issues. But I’d contend it was partially the result of him shedding the pounds. A pitcher’s power comes from his lower half. And no pitcher had a bigger, stronger lower half than Sabathia.
Similarly, much of Vlad Jr.’s power comes from his lower half. If he loses some weight, he may also lose some power. Regardless, even at his current weight, I believe he’s proven he can play third base at a major league level. So, for me, making the move to 1B/DH isn’t about his ability to play third.
He still has a long way to go, of course. But from what I’ve seen, he has the tools to be an above average third baseman. He’s already shown he has the reflexes and agility to make split-second snags on screaming shots launched his way. He’s also proven he can move laterally in either direction, as well as charge in on ground balls, making plays to first and second base with surprising ease.
Plus, there’s that incredible arm of his.
Newsflash: Not every major leaguer is a defensive wiz right off the bat. It takes time. You can already see he’s getting better and will continue to improve with more experience and reps. Look at Oakland A’s shortstop, Marcus Semien. In his first full season at short in 2015, he committed 35 errors. This year he finished with just 12.
Also, it’s not like Vlad Jr.’s been playing third his whole life. It’s still a relatively new position for him. When Alex Anthopoulos signed him in 2015, he was an outfielder. It’s actually pretty impressive that he’s as good as he is.
So then why make Vlad Jr. a 1B/DH when I believe he can be a more than adequate major league 3B?
Vlad’s True Value
The truth is, no matter how much he improves at third, he’ll never be Nolan Arenado. There are no gold gloves in his future. Vlad Jr.’s calling card is his offensive. That much is clear.
Both his value to the team and his future paycheque are directly linked to his ability to mash the ball and get on base. The Jays need him to hit and walk, not make highlight plays. So if his true value is with a bat in his hands, why not move him to a less physically demanding position with less distractions? In other words, why not split his time between first base and DH?
As much as everyone loves to knock Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins for delaying Vlad Jr.’s promotion to the big club, it’s always better to bring a prospect up late than too early. Yeah, I’m sure service time manipulation was a big part of the decision.
But the other big part was making sure Vlad Jr. could play third base at the major league level. Because once you’re at this level, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re under a giant microscope. And every botched play gets magnified.
And the last thing that Jays want is for Vlad Jr. to take his defensive miscues to the plate. This is something that plagued former Blue Jay Edwin Encarnación before he made the move from third to 1B/DH.
It was clear Encarnación’s struggles at third were contributing to his struggles at the plate. How could it not? I mean, he was so horrific in the field that he was given the nickname “E5.” And if you recall, Encarnación didn’t really take off offensively until he became a 1B/DH.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was going through something similar earlier this season. His yips at second base started bleeding into his hitting. The Jays quickly nipped this in the bud by sending him down and eventually transitioning him to left field.
Gurriel Jr. was able to work out the kinks far from the watchful eye of Blue Jays fans and media. So when he was finally called back up and placed in left field, his offence really picked up.
Wear and Tear
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Jays should make Vlad Jr. their future 1B/DH is to reduce the amount of wear and tear on his body. He was scratched for the last 2 games of the season due to knee soreness – something that also forced him to miss time earlier this season. And he’s only 20.
So what happens when he’s 25 or 30?
The Jays need to find ways to save his legs in order to extend his career and his prime as much as possible. This isn’t to say that first base is a cakewalk or that it requires zero physical abilities. It still does. But the demands of what’s known as the “hot corner” severely outweigh that of first base.
Every time I see Vlad Jr. charge for a ball or range far into foul territory to make a catch, I cringe. Not because I think he’ll screw up the play, but because of the physical exertion it puts on his legs.
I’m actually one of the few baseball fans on Earth who still believes in bunting. But with Vlad Jr. manning third base, I thank the heavens MLB teams have basically adopted a no bunting policy.
The fact is, with all the physical exertion at third combined with running the bases, including occasionally legging out base hits, it’s going to take a huge toll on his body.
And one day this toll will be paid.
So if anything can be done to reduce the strain on his body, at least on the defensive side of things, I’m all for it.
Guess what? Third base isn’t just third base any more.
Thanks to exaggerated shifts, Vlad Jr. finds himself playing a lot of shortstop. Every time the Jays shift on a lefty, he’s the only one on the left side of the infield, usually positioned where the shortstop would be.
In this situation, if a batter bunts to the left side or attempts to beat the shift by going oppo, Vlad Jr. will have to cover a ton of space. Also, with a man on first, depending on where the ball is hit, he’ll either have to book it to second to turn a double play or dash to third in case the runner tries to take the extra base.
Either way, I cringe.
Despite the vast improvements the organization has made to the Rogers Centre turf, artificial turf is artificial turf. And it can be hard on a player’s legs. With half their games at Rogers Centre every season, along with another 9 or 10 at Tropicana Field, the Jays play upwards of 91 games on artificial surfaces.
So the less Vlad Jr. spends running around on the carpet the better off he’ll be in the long run. Before he became a Blue Jay in 2015, Josh Donaldson was extremely durable, playing in 158 games in back-to-back seasons.
Maybe there were other factors involved, but after 2 years with the Jays, which included seasons of 158 and 155 games, his games played dropped off dramatically. In 2017 and 2018, he dealt with multiple hamstring and lower body ailments, playing in just 113 and 52 games as a Blue Jay.
However, this season, while playing on grass in Atlanta’s SunTrust Park, the Bringer of Rain seems to be over his leg issues, appearing in 155 games.
Yes, Vlad Jr. will still be on turf if he plays first base. But he’d be doing less running around. And as I suggested earlier, not only should he move to first, he should split time at DH to limit his exposure to artificial turf even more while keeping his bat in the lineup.
Proactively moving great offensive players from one position to another to reduce wear and tear and prolong their careers isn’t anything new.
Most often it’s the catcher’s spot that teams will move their offensively gifted players away from, as was the case for both Josh Donaldson and Carlos Delgado. The Jays briefly flirted with Delgado in the outfield, but eventually transitioned him to first base where he remained and became an offensive superstar.
Similarly, the Twins eventually decided to move 3-time AL batting champ Joe Mauer from catcher to first to prolong his career as an offensive threat.
Of course, third base isn’t as physically demanding as crouching behind the plate and taking balls and backswings to various parts of the body for 100+ games. But it still adds up. Especially with the body type that Vlad Jr. possesses.
The famous example of a player transitioning from third to first is the Detroit Tiger’s Miguel Cabrera. At the time, the move was made more out of necessity because the Tigers already had a third basemen by the name of Carlos Guillén. But more than likely, it helped extend Cabrera’s career.
I’ve also heard the argument that the Jays should just let Vlad Jr. play third until he shows he can’t. But I’d argue, it’s better to make the move too early than too late.
First of all, this isn’t a move you can make just by snapping your fingers. Poof. You are now our first baseman. Congratulations. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just stick a guy there. It’s not as easy a position as some people think.
Players like Justin Smoak didn’t become gold glove caliber first basemen over night. Like any position, it takes time and reps. Brandon Drury, for instance, can play third base like a motherfucker. But he’s looked shaky the few times he’s played first base this season. Because, well, he’s not used to it. The hardest thing for Vlad Jr. might be learning to pick up short hops and other errant throws from the infielders. So the sooner Vlad Jr. can learn the position the better.
Secondly, with the rebuild still going on and the front office trying to figure out which pieces fit where, you want to start locking players into roles. Transitioning Vlad Jr. to a 1B/DH now will allow Shapiro and Atkins to know his role going forward, so that they can move on to solidifying other positions.
What you don’t want is for the Jays to pick up a full time first baseman then realize that no, actually, Vlad Jr. needs to play first. That’ll severely mess up the roster construction.
Who’s on Third?
So if going forward Vlad Jr. is the Blue Jays’ 1B/DH, who plays third?
The very short term option is Brandon Drury. He’s got a solid glove, but unless he makes more strides offensively next year, he appears to be just a below average hitter with some pop who strikes out too much. The very long term option could be Blue Jays farmhand, Jordan Groshans, who’s split time between third and short. But considering he was just drafted a year ago out of high school and finished this season at low-A Lansing, he’s a long, long ways away, if he even pans out.
One possible external option is Mike Moustakas of the Milwaukee Brewers, who’ll be a free agent next season provided both sides don’t pick up his $11M mutual option. Yes, he’s 31. But he has big time playoff experience, including a World Series ring, and would be a good influence on the young core. He has a lot of pop, which will play well at the Dome, along with an above average OPS and a high plate IQ.
He doesn’t strikeout a ton, which would be a good addition to a Jays lineup that does. This season, in 584 plate appearances, he only struck out 98 times. He’s a lefty bat, which the Jays are severely lacking. Unless you’re happy to rely on Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney and/or Rowdy Tellez.
Moustakas can also get at it defensively, playing third, but also second or first in a pinch. Plus he likely won’t break the bank, considering he hasn’t fared well, contract-wise, the past 2 offseasons. The Jays might be able to get him on a 2 or 3-year deal for good value.But the dream option would be the Washington Nationals’ Anthony Rendon who’ll be a free agent this offseason.
This year the 29-year-old led the NL in doubles (44) and RBI (126). And like Moustakas, he has a high plate IQ, posting an astronomical .319 average, .412 OBP and a 1.010 OPS, while striking out just 86 times in 646 plate appearances.
Of course, it’ll be hard to repeat a monster season like this, especially when having to learn a whole new set of pitchers in the AL. But these numbers aren’t too far above his career stats (.290 BA, .369 OPB, .859 OPS).
Plus he’s a defensive wiz at third, committing just 11 errors in 146 games. Last year he had only 6 miscues in 136 games. The giant caveat, of course, will be the price tag and term. The Nationals have reportedly offered him a 7-year, $210M to $215M deal, which would take him to his age 37 season.
That’s going to be tough to beat for any team. And would the Jays want to be paying someone upwards of $32M/year for their age 35-37 seasons? The only thing the Jays could do is go higher on the per year and less on the term. But I don’t see the team locking up all that dough in a single player who’ll be 30 in June.
Additionally, the Jays could resign Justin Smoak for one more season while the rebuild continues. He and Vlad Jr. could rotate between 1B and DH. Smoak has proven to be a more than steady presence in the clubhouse and at first, where he continues to help bail out the youngsters on errant throws. Continuing to save errors for guys like Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio will help with their confidence and overall development.
All in all, simply put, moving Vlad Jr. from one corner to the other will help make him a franchise cornerstone for years to come.
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