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Vlad Guerrero Jr. Tearing Up MiLB: 'He Can Be as Good as His Dad or Even Better'

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistJune 5, 2017

Tyler Marcotte / Lansing Lugnuts

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — He's trying to hide from it. He just wants to come off like any other Midwest League player. Like any other Lansing Lugnut.

So the 18-year-old third baseman for the Blue Jays' Single-A affiliate keeps his teammates close. Approach him, and his arm drapes over a teammate's shoulder—not just in camaraderie, but like he wants to make sure the guy doesn't go anywhere. The only time he's alone is in the batter's box.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs the teammate to translate, yeah, but he also uses him as camouflage so he can blend in, look like part of a crowd.

"We all are the same person," he says, translated by the teammate. "We're just trying to come together every day." It's the same thing, he says, that he saw when he would watch his dad in MLB clubhouses. "I think those guys are the same with my dad, just like the guys on this team."

Nice sentiment, but yeah right.

Guerrero, just like his baseball-icon dad, never had a shot at anonymity.

Tyler Marcotte / Lansing Lugnuts

This is, of course, the son of Vladimir Guerrero, the nine-time All-Star, eight-time Silver Slugger Award winner and soon-to-be Hall of Famer.

And try as he might, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is not part of the crowd. Not with that name. Not with those curly, blond, shoulder-length locks that bounce during every home run trot. And not with those stats.

Guerrero is hitting .331 in his first minor league season, which ranks fourth in the Midwest League. He has also walked more than he's struck out, the only player hitting over .280 in the league who can say that. He began the season by reaching base in his first 29 games.

And again, the most impressive statistic of all: He's only 18 years old.

Observe the team, and you can see right away that Guerrero fits in with his teammates, who are grinding to make baseball their life's work. He also doesn't openly look beyond that, refusing to speculate on his future in baseball—even something as benign as a potential promotion to high-A ball.

But those who watch him, to a person, have stories to tell about how incredible this kid is, usually centered on his unbelievable power.

Lugnuts infielder Bradley Jones recalls how, when the two were teammates last season in rookie ball, Guerrero hit a home run at the Bluefield Blue Jays home field into the forest that serves as the stadium's backdrop. Google it and your jaw might click your mouse.

A Lansing staffer says this season Guerrero homered off the scoreboard at Cooley Law School Stadium, the team's home field. The staffer's unscientific estimate is that, without anything in the ball's path, it would have landed just shy of 500 feet.

Tyler Marcotte / Lansing Lugnuts

Guerrero Jr. became, in his own right, a multimillionaire at the age of 16 when he signed with the Blue Jays and earned a $3.9 million bonus. MLB.com, after a little more than a year of professional baseball, has him ranked the 28th-best prospect in the game (and is likely to move up that list, which is top-heavy with players on the verge of becoming everyday MLB players).

Compared to other Midwest League players, Guerrero looks like a monolith. At 6'1", 200 pounds, he easily looks like he could be the oldest player in a league of players in their early 20s. Such has been the case each time Guerrero has passed through a level of baseball.

South Bend Cubs pitcher Jose Paulino, a native of the Dominican Republic, has known Guerrero since the latter was 10. Paulino, himself ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the Cubs' system by MLB.com, was signed by Wilton Guerrero, Vladimir Jr.'s uncle. He says that when Guerrero was 10, he could play with players who were 16, significant given that is the age many Dominican players sign with major league clubs.

"He has a good talent, and he's like his dad: He loves the sport, and he works hard, so he has a really good shot to have something special," Paulino says.

"He's a young guy with all that talent. One day he can be as good as his dad or even better than him."

He's a household name among wannabes in the Midwest League. Opponents will watch in awe, like little kids on sandlots across America watching their own MLB hopeful take cuts at the plate.

On April 25, against the South Bend Cubs, Guerrero smashed a ninth-inning homer that might have imprinted itself in the memory of those on the field as much as any other play this season.

"I was a little blown away, and I don't really throw that around a lot," South Bend shortstop Zack Short says. "He hit a ball and I think he had two strikes on him, and it was absolutely launched.

"He hit it...and nobody moved, really. No disrespect to our pitchers, obviously. But it was legit."

For all his modesty on the field, Guerrero is decidedly different off it. So long as he's among his teammates—and only his teammates—he doesn't mind being the center of attention. He likes to show off his golf game by practicing putting with a baseball bat. He uses social media but says it's only a way to communicate with "my guys." Apparently his inner circle is quite large. Guerrero has over 50,000 followers on Instagram.

The account spans his interests proportionally—heavy on baseball and horsing around with his teammates, a little golf, some pictures of family with some Dominican culture mixed in.

Not a single photo is with any of a number of MLB players whom he said influenced his young baseball career. Via his dad, he has already spent more days inside MLB clubhouses than many of his teammates ever will. Yet nothing about him hints privilege. He most definitely grew up under such circumstances. The senior Guerrero's career earnings total $125,541,455 not including endorsements.

"One of the most humble human beings I've ever met," Jones says. "Obviously there's a language barrier there. But as far as just communicating what we can communicate with, he's one of the most humble kids I've ever met in my life."

Should Guerrero keep producing at this rate, those around the Midwest League believe he'll be sent to the Dunedin Blue Jays, the organization's advanced Single-A affiliate in the Florida State League. 

While offensively advanced, Guerrero looks noticeably raw when fielding at third base, even to the untrained eye. During fielding practice, he muffs slow ground balls and isn't always accurate throwing across the diamond to first base.

Tyler Marcotte / Lansing Lugnuts

He moved from the outfield before the season, indicating that Toronto isn't set on any long-term plans for him defensively. Regardless, movement from level to level is almost entirely predicated on what a prospect can do at the plate. And well, clearly he's hitting at a level that warrants a promotion.

"If he keeps producing the way he keeps producing and his maturity level continues to grow, I think he'll be in the big leagues before he knows it," Jones says. "He's that good, and I think he's going to be a phenomenal player as far as he keeps progressing and keeps getting more mature."

The AL East is loaded with young talent. The Yankees appear as if they'll perennially contend for the division with stars like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez performing well at the MLB level and a haul of upper-echelon prospects in the pipeline. Likewise, the Boston Red Sox have a young core with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi.

For the Blue Jays to compete in the division in future seasons, they'll need Guerrero to eventually have the same impact as the aforementioned rival players. He's rated the best prospect in Toronto's organization and is expected to be the centerpiece of the team's lineup in a few seasons.

Yet, there seems to be no self-imposed pressure by Guerrero.

"Everyone has a dream," Guerrero says. "But you also have to have a plan, and every at-bat, every ground ball, every pitch, I'm just trying to concentrate on what I have to do and which are my strengths."

He is as self-aware as he is modest, recognizing that his success does carry some celebrity—especially back home. When asked about his offseason program, he didn't talk about a hitting routine or weight room regimen.

Instead, he spoke of what his dad preaches: Use a bat and ball to help others.

The senior Guerrero still flies back to Montreal to make appearances even though his former Expos moved to Washington, D.C., to become the Nationals. When father and son are together in the Dominican Republic in the offseason, they'll visit hospitals together and run camps.

"We spend a lot of time when the season is over down in Dominican, and yes, I spend a lot of time with the kids," Guerrero says. "We try helping and everything because I grew up on that and I saw my dad helping people. So I want to be like him."

Those words remind of what his father once told B/R, that he wants his son "to beat [him] by one in everything—one more All-Star Game, one more home run, one more hit, one more Silver Slugger."

Guerrero Jr. might not be comfortable with the stardom that being "like Dad" entails quite yet. But he's on his way.

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