Anyone who follows my work knows I'm prone to oddly specific predictions. They don’t often play out as predicted. This is utterly unsurprising since I have no connections or inside contacts that give me insight into the intentions, mindset or most of all proprietary information of the Toronto Blue Jays. However, I’m more than mildly fascinated with the chess game going on off the field as well as the sport itself. I make a pastime of speculating.
Take, for example, Lansing shortstop Kevin Smith, the Blue Jays 4th round selection last year. As the one-third point in the schedule approaches he has an astonishing 23 doubles which leads not just his league but (as of Thursday’s play) all of North American affiliated baseball to go with a 1.095 OPS while playing highly regarded defense. In a vacuum one would assume that a promotion to A Advanced Dunedin would be happening any second. However, the Jays’ first rounder, Logan Warmoth is the current Dunedin shortstop, and he’s not performing at such a high level so he’s not going anywhere. That means the Jays have to balance considerations of potential playing time, particularly at each man’s primary position, with considerations related to Smith’s bat receiving sufficient challenges. For an outside observer, speculating about how the team reaches that balance is as much art as science. Probably considerably more so.
Which brings me to the only player that many baseball fans, especially Blue Jays, are obsessing over when it comes to potential promotions: Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
In case you just emerged from a coma or a three month expedition to Antarctica, Vladdy is treating AA like a video game with all the cheat codes turned on. In 42 games and 164 at-bats he’s hitting an impossible .427 with an OPS of 1.186 and getting better as the season progresses. He’s hit .471 in May, .500 in his last 10 games, increased his slugging by over 200 points in May over April and has a 32 game on-base streak. He’s gone hitless in only five of his 42 games played and failed to reach base in only one. On the other hand, the 19 year old is only in his second season playing 3B and has the defensive rawness you would expect given that circumstance with every professional observer on record acknowledging his defense is a work in progress (with opinions ranging from “that’s not a major league third baseman right now” to “below average but playable”).
The Blue Jays, then, have a basketload of sometimes competing considerations to juggle. The bat is simple, he’d probably be the second best hitter on the Jays today if he were there (Josh Donaldson’s slump notwithstanding, he’s still the best). However, Donaldson is their 3B for as long as he’s on the team, and as long as they presume that they are in a playoff race he’ll be on the team. Kendrys Morales, the ostensible DH, is having a disaster season that the overwhelming majority of Jays fans would like to see put out of its misery (which would involve the team eating over $20 million in remaining salary) but very few teams are going to pluck a guy who needs a lot of defensive reps out of the minors and plug him in as even a part-time DH. Then there’s the whole discussion of service time. Many observers suggest that the Jays will feel pressure to follow the Bryant Model and keep Vlad in the minors until a few weeks into the 2019 season, and that even more so if they fall out of contention. There are a lot of layers to peel back here if one is to speculate about a promotion schedule.
One somewhat counterintuitive factor is the status of the major league team as a contender. If, for example, the Jays fall definitely out of the race by the end of the July, they will almost certainly cash in ever available chip that has value at the time. Three of their starters, three or four veteran relievers, Granderson, Pearce, Pillar, and yes Donaldson. On the surface one would assume that trading Donaldson opens the door to promote and play Guerrero - and they might. But some would argue that a stripped down team out of contention would be a horrible place to burn precious service time. They wouldn’t be able to really make that decision without a strong commitment to work out a Stanton (or at least Trout) type long term deal that bought out his 20’s. I’m actually inclined to think they will try to do something like that, for reasons I’ll get to shortly.
On the other hand, if they climb firmly into the race, keep JD and even add to the team, there’s an argument for choosing that moment when you augment the run with a bat of Guerrero’s caliber, defense laid aside for the moment. But even here that won’t be done without the financial consideration, crass as it may be.
Which brings me to my crystal ball. I cannot, of course, guess how the team will fare but there are positive signs: the rotation pretty much has to get better, as does Donaldson and there are other hitters who have been better recently enough in the past that it’s reasonable to assume improvement. Moreover, the schedule gets much easier in the second half. So my initial premise is that the Jays will trend toward contention, though a lot depends on the performance of other teams. In this scenario, the trick is to find that point in the season at which the balance shifts in favor of calling him up. Before that, however, is the consideration of when exactly the inevitable promotion to AAA will occur. It would be stunning if the development conscious team running the Blue Jays now were to skip Guerrero over AAA, so much so that I won’t even bother to speculate about what that would look like.
As of Thursday, Vlad had played in 42 of New Hampshire’s 44 games. Between now and the AA All Star game there are 31 to play (33 in AAA Buffalo) and coming out of that break, Buffalo has another 21 before August 1. Spoiler, I don’t think there’s much chance Vlad debuts in the major before the trade deadline because I fully expect the team will pick it’s buy/sell option and execute it before any such promotion. So, with that in mind I’m inclined to think that there’s some logic in the organization seeking to somewhat evenly split the amount of time that Guerrero spends in AA and AAA. That would imply that a promotion to Buffalo would happen sometime in the first third of June. Both teams have an off day June 4, and that would be an obvious travel day without missing a game. And by the way, that’s a consideration. Teams, in general, cannot build development plans around the business interests of minor league affiliates. But Guerrero is a generational talent and the Organization would at least consider how to balance the marketing interests of those two farm teams. As of June 4 the Fisher Cats would have played 56 games, and the Bisons would have 55 before August 1 (weather permitting of course). If I’m making a prediction, this is my day. The alternative is June 11 when NH has another off day. Or somewhere in between.
Now, about that major league debut.
Remember that my assumption here is that Donaldson returns to form and the Jays believe they are competitive when late July comes around. At this point, augmenting the roster can come both from trade acquisitions (which the team management hesitates to do because of the cost in prospects) or promotion from within. On the latter front, if one presumes - as I am - that they will indeed promote Guerrero (assuming he doesn’t fail to perform in AAA of course) then what’s the optimal date? First, as August arrives the Jays are on a West Coast swing so let’s assume that they won’t fly the kid out there for five games (albeit there’s a non-zero possibility they would give consideration to the Western Canada Jays fans who’ll show up in Seattle). When they come home there are two series, first against the Red Sox and then the Rays. The current management is on record preferring not to debut highly anticipated rookies at home. After that they hit the road to Kansas City on August 13.
That’s the day I predict will be Guerrero's debut. Barring the August 2nd start of the Seattle series, my second most likely choice, the KC series makes a lot of sense. He breaks in on the road, against a weak team, with a series in New York to follow, and would only miss about 20 games of defensive reps in Buffalo. Plus, the “dog days” are when you’d most want to give Donaldson some half-days off by letting him DH some.
In conclusion let me get back to the financial considerations which drive so much of the “extra year of control” debate. One thing Mark Shapiro has been open about is that he’s not just playing out a computer simulation where fans don’t matter. He’s said that logistically the best time to reset the roster was before the 2017 season but they worked to both refresh the roster and remain in contention out of a consideration to maintain the fan-base momentum generated in the two previous years. Unfortunately the disappointment of the ‘17 outcome depressed attendance and season ticket sales and don’t you think for a moment that they haven’t noticed. If they remain in the race, adding VGJ to the roster would be the attendance equivalent of adding Tulo in 2015 (probably even more so) and it’s economic momentum they need. If they fall out and trade Donaldson, Guerrero would be the only possible galm for the wounded hearts of Jays fans. Either way, the business model argues for promotion in my opinion. Particularly when you are a team entirely financially able to sign him to a 10 year mega-deal and smart enough to know it’s a good idea.
So, we’ll see how my crystal ball plays out. Mark your calendars for June 4, and August 13 with a big star by the latter.