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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Let Vladdy play third base until he can’t

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.

  • Chappy

    Not sure 1B is where power hitters who can’t play defence end up. Bellinger is great at 1st, Hosmer has been brilliant there, long list of others, maybe he will become a defensive asset at 1b but i definitely don’t see any scenario where he stays at 3rd so think next year should be the move across the diamond, even some reps end of this year to prepare would be a good idea.

  • Cincinnatus C.

    You need to supply more evidence than “believe it or not”–are there examples of guys who have started out as terrible major league third basemen and, with experience, improved to being even OK? Of those, did any of them have Vlad’s obvious athletic shortcomings? In particular, why expect Vlad’s range–which is the most obvious problem–to improve with experience? And anyway, why do we want a guy playing third who may, with experience, be maybe OK? I don’t even like the idea of him playing an OK first base–never mind that there’s no guarantee he would be an OK major league first baseman, either. Why not aim to have superior defenders at every position, with a guy like Biggio playing first? The obvious answer is because if Biggio plays first and Vlad DHes, then you need other guys who are not Brandon Drury to play second and third. And the obvious rejoinder to that is, if you’re a team with championship aspirations, as opposed to a team with a fake-small-market inferiority complex, you want to go out and get those guys.

    • Manny b

      Ian’s argument can be boiled down to one sentence: Vladdy deserves the chance to play third base at the MLB level, and you don’t pull the plug after less than one season.

      It’s hard to argue with that, and the marginal upgrade a better defender would provide is not important for the Jays right now.

  • The Humungus

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s at 3rd until Groshans pushes him across the diamond. Hopefully his footwork can improve, a lot of the work is the same at first as it is at 3rd. At least has been in my experience.

    • Dexxter

      Really?

      I played SS and 3b my whole life. The odd times I’ve ended up at 1b for whatever reason I found it really awkward. Not great at picking throws, knowing when to come off the bag instead of stretch for a throw.

      I found the exact opposite… that it’s very different. Which is why I’m OK with them moving Vlad early. A weak 3b doesn’t just move to first and automatically become a great 1b. It takes time and practice. Rather he get the practice this year instead of in later years when the playoff push is really on.

      • The Humungus

        I played 1st and 3rd my whole life. 3rd is my natural position, but 1st came because I can catch anything and am 6’3″. The reaction times are the same, so the quickness of foot required at similar when the ball is coming at you. The biggest difference at first is that the ball comes at you less often.

        Getting the throws down is the easy part. Find the bag, find the ball, catch the ball at all costs.

        • Dexxter

          Yeah see I rarely played 1st. Was usually SS but the occasional injury would slow me down and I’d play first for a while. Always found the transition really hard to get used too because I was there so rarely.

          • The Humungus

            If all you’ve known is the full left side, you’ll feel awkward that far to the right. But when you just worry about the line, it’s less of a transition You only really have to worry about going to one side on either spot.

  • Hentgen

    Moving him to first INCREASES his value because he’s a bad third baseman and might make a passable first baseman. Maybe if he loses some of the weight so that he’s more nimble he can earn a chance at third again, but this “lowers his value” explanation for keeping him at third base is a real head scratcher.

    • Abogilo

      Fangraphs has positional value for 3B at +2.5 runs per season and 1B at -12.5 runs per season. That means playing him at 3B and allowing a roster spot to be available at 1B is worth 15 runs per season compared to the opposite.

      When his defense (relative to defense he could provide at 1B) is worth more than -15 runs per season, it is worth moving him over if you assume he can be a defense neutral 1B, earlier if you think he can be a plus defender at 1B.

      Unfortunately since Vlad gains value with his arm strength (less relevant at 1B) and loses it from range/footwork/glove, it is likely he will perform worse at 1B than average and therefore the break even point would even be lower than -15 runs per game.

      I think his prorated defense for the season is somewhere around -8 runs… Third is the right call.

      • Abogilo

        Going to try to be more clear with what I mean in second paragraph…

        If you think he can be a league average defender at 1B, it is not worth moving him off 3B until his defense is lower than -15 runs per season. If you think he can be a plus defender at 1B you should move him earlier.

        Unfortunately since Vlad gains value with his arm strength (less relevant at 1B) and loses it from range/footwork/glove, it is likely he will perform worse at 1B than average and therefore the break even point would even be lower than -15 runs per game.

      • Cincinnatus C.

        Seems to me you can run the same argument for keeping Gurriel at second. If the alternative to Gurriel at second is Richard Urena, you keep Gurriel at second. If it’s Cavan Biggio, you don’t. Similarly, if the alternative to Vlad at third is Brandon Drury, you keep Vlad at third. But ideally you want an actually good player as the alternative at third, in which case you move Vlad off third, because you want to maximize the value of the team, not of the player. If maximizing Vlad’s value as a player means not acquiring a good third baseman, moving Vlad to first, and moving Rowdy, uh, elsewhere, then maximizing Vlad’s value is at cross-purposes with making the team better.

        For the rest of this year, though, yeah, of course you keep him at third, because Rowdy and Smoak have to play as long as they’re here, and because you might as well keep trying to make or keep him as good as he’s going to be at third because he’s going to be there until a better alternative shows up, and who knows how long that’s going to be.

        • Cincinnatus C.

          And of course you can also make the team better by acquiring a better first baseman, or by acquiring a good second baseman and moving Biggio to first, and leaving Vlad at third. You do the best you can with the opportunities that present themselves … but ideally, Vlad doesn’t play third.

  • El Cabeza

    I think they should sit him down after the season, and make sure he’s aware of his defensive metrics compared to the rest of the league. Then reinforce that he can contribute more to the team at 3B, management wants him to remain at 3B, but if below average performance like that continues, they’ll have no choice but to move him to 1B.
    Then ask him if he has any ideas as to how he can improve his agility and range. Hopefully he’s say losing some weight, and then they can put him on a nutrition/training program, and it will be his idea.

    I’m roughly Vladdy’s height and weight right now, but if my slo-pitch team was willing to pay for nutritionists and trainers to help me drop 20lbs and keep it off, I’d be 20lbs lighter, guaranteed. Abuela’s cooking be damned.