There are a few degrees of separation between Los Angeles Angels centre-fielder Mike Trout and the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr., baseball’s No. 1 prospect.
Trout wears No. 27 for the Angels, the same shirt that once belonged to Vladimir Guerrero, who passed his name and his talent on to his son.
When the younger Guerrero makes the jump to the big leagues, a move expected to come as early as late April, Jays fans will be hoping the third baseman, the consensus choice as the minor-league player of the year in 2018, can put together a career that might match Trout, who has been baseball’s best player over the last seven years, finishing first or second in MVP voting six times.
Trout didn’t come into the professional game at the top. He was selected 25th overall in the 2009 draft, one spot behind Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk. And while Grichuk doesn’t profess to know what it is like to be the top prospect in the sport, he understands the pressure Guerrero will face trying to match the hype.
“I would just say have fun,” Grichuk said. “You’re going to mess up, you’re going to fail. Just kind of learn from it and enjoy it. Don’t beat yourself up over it, no one’s perfect. You fail more times than you succeed so just go out there and try to learn from every failure and just try to get better — but enjoy the moment.”
Justin Smoak, the Jays first baseman who needed nine years to break out after being drafted 11th overall in 2008, doesn’t think the moment will be as daunting for Guerrero as it can be for other touted prospects.
“I feel like, with guys like him, he’s been around the game his whole life, he’s been in a big-league clubhouse since he was born, so being in the big leagues is not going to scare him,” Smoak said. “He’s a really good player and he knows what to expect, so I feel like it’s always going to help him.”
The questions about how Guerrero will produce in the big leagues can’t be answered until he makes the jump. But his current and future teammates think he will be able to take the spotlight in stride.
“He has always had a lot of attention, so he’s good at managing it,” said Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who played with Guerrero at Double-A New Hampshire. “He also doesn’t pay attention to everything that’s going on around him. All he cares about is playing. That’ll probably be very easy for him to stay calm and just focused on doing a great job.”
“He’s always trying to help us, help his teammates out, get better,” said Bo Bichette, the Jays’ No. 2 prospect. “The thing about him I love is that he loves the attention, he loves being Vladdy, but at the same time there’s no sense of entitlement, there’s no selfishness from him.”
New Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, who goes back decades with the Guerrero family — he worked with Vlad Sr. when he was in the minors — has yet to talk much with the younger Guerrero. But he liked what he saw of Toronto’s minor-leaguers at the Jays’ annual development camp at the Rogers Centre in January.
“I listened to them talk and they’re going to be leaders and that’s good,” Montoyo said. “I’m looking forward to that. We’ve got some good kids and they’re not only leaders, they’re going to be good players, too.”
Guerrero said his conversations with Montoyo are more about family than the game. And those types of connections are important to Montoyo.
“It’s huge,” he said. “(A player) might be having a tough time at home and you don’t know anything about it s,o yeah, to me that’s the first thing. Know about their families and how (they’re) doing and what’s going on. How’s your mom, how’s your dad, all that. That’s very important for me to know.”
Guerrero knows Montoyo’s door is always open, and that his teammates are there for him too.
“I know I can talk to them any time,” he said, through translator and Jays mental performance coach Tanya Bialostozky.
The first thing he plans to do when he arrives at spring training in mid February is try to get to know “every single one of my teammates,” he said. “There are some new faces and I’ll just try to get to know them and also get the experience of the guys that have been there longer, see what they’re doing so I can start doing what works for them, too.”
Meanwhile, Jays fans are making their own connection. Guerrero has already seen jerseys with his name on the back. It’s an honour he takes seriously.
“That’s why I know that I have a responsibility to get better and keeping working hard every day.”
Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy