From the moment Vladimir Guerrero Jr. set foot at third base during his Major League debut on April 26, the countdown started towards his eventual shift across the diamond. It’s not a question of if the Blue Jays will convert him into a first baseman; it’s when.
Vladdy’s had his fair share of difficulties at third base this season. His spectacular arm has been on display for many throws across the diamond, but his footwork could use some work.
After his latest lower body injury, the masses have already started calling for Guerrero to change positions and shift to first base. A 20-year-old third baseman, abandoning the position where he’s spent less than a full season so far? Right.
It’s a tad premature to pull the parachute on Guerrero’s native position before he’s barely played it. I’m not debating whether he’ll move to first base (he will), but much like giving a young starting pitcher every opportunity before converting them into a reliever, the Blue Jays need to apply the same philosophy here; let Vladdy play third base until he can’t.
Admittedly, Guerrero’s defensive numbers at third base aren’t very good this season. His -4 defensive runs saved rank him fourth worst among third basemen, his 14 errors are the second most among third baseman, his .928 fielding percentage is 8th worst in MLB and his -5.6 range runs is dead last in baseball.
My issue with moving Guerrero across the diamond is that it immediately decreases his value. No offense to Justin Smoak and Rowdy Tellez, but power-hitting first baseman are a dime-a-dozen. Players end up playing first base when they have no defensive value anywhere else on the diamond.
Just think back to Edwin Encarnacion, who struggled for years at the hot corner, only to end up at first base and finally flourished. The Jays made a last-ditch effort to keep him on the team by shifting Encarnacion to first base because they desperately wanted to keep his bat in the lineup. That isn’t the case with Vladdy, who is the new face of the franchise.
For all the struggles he’s been through at his position, Guerrero still has some value playing third base. By playing the position three-to-four times a week, there’s a “learning on the job” aspect to the position, and with the increased reps and continual playing time, there’s no reason he can’t develop into an average fielding third baseman.
Believe it or not, with more experience, he could get better at his position, and it’s difficult to imagine him looking worse than he has in 2019 at the hot corner. The Blue Jays owe it to Vladdy (and his teammates) to give him a decent amount of rope here. To give up on a player at his native position this soon sets a dangerous precedent for other young players on the team.
Unless Guerrero experiences a Gurriel-like meltdown at third base, he deserves a good two to three years to figure things out at the big league level.
Because of the ferocity of his bat, the team can look past his inefficiencies at third base. But the moment he jumps across to first base, Guerrero doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore on defense. If he goes there, he stays on the right side of the diamond for good, before transitioning to designated hitter.
After Smoak, Tellez is the next logical first baseman on the Blue Jays depth chart, but after Guerrero, who would be a suitable replacement at third base? Brandon Drury? The Blue Jays boast a better lineup with Vladdy at third and Tellez (or whoever) at first instead of Drury at the hot corner and Guerrero at first base.
It’s not like there’s a viable option in the minor leagues, either. Maybe Kevin Smith or Nash Knight, but best-case scenario, they’re still a year or two away from breaking into the big leagues. Unless the Blue Jays dip into free agency or trade for a third baseman, it still makes the most sense to leave Vladdy at his native position.
Eventually, Guerrero will follow in the footsteps of Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Edwin Encarnacion before him, transitioning across the diamond and settling in as a designated hitter. But why are we having this conversation about a 20-year-old in his first season in the big leagues?
Besides, it’s much more difficult to find a Guerrero calibre bat at third base than it is at first base. You’re overpaying in prospect capital or free agent dollars to replicate those kinds of power numbers at the hot corner, rather than a few million for replacement level (or slightly better than replacement level) production at first base.
Sure, the Blue Jays would love to have a third baseman with more range, but Vladdy’s arm occasionally makes up for his defensive shortcomings. And now he has Bo Bichette stationed next to him, sucking up some ground balls on the left side of the infield.
With reps and experience, Guerrero should improve at the hot corner. If he doesn’t, first base will always be an option later.. But it’s far too soon to close that door before it has a chance to open.