Road Trip: Vlad Jr. worth the drive to Buffalo
BUFFALO, NY - A light drizzle leaked from a grey sky as I motored down the Peace Bridge en route to catch the Greatest Show in the Minor Leagues, and the buzz-cutted customs agent who greeted me at the U.S.-Canada border moments later wasn't sporting a much sunnier disposition.
"Citizenship?" the agent barked.
"Canadian," I replied.
"Where you going?"
"I'm writing a story on Vlad Jr."
"Is he going to get called up this year?"
"Uh, I doubt it, frankly."
"You know, I didn't realize he was such a big prospect. Can he throw a ball foul pole to foul pole like his old man?"
"Well," I said, my tone shifting from sheepish citizen to Baseball Knower, "he has a plus arm, that's for sure."
"It's genetic. I might try to get out to a game Friday. He'll still be here, right?"
"Oh, for sure," I responded, neglecting to mention that the Bisons headed out on a road trip following Thursday's matinee.
"All right. Have a good one, buddy."
Further evidence that Vladito is unrivaled among his peers: No other minor leaguer gets you through customs so expediently.
His first night in Buffalo, the final stop in his ridiculously quick ascent up the minor-league ladder, Guerrero Jr. helped the Bisons lure 9,477 fans into Coca-Cola Field, roughly 4,000 more than their average haul for a Tuesday night game.
In his Triple-A debut, much to the chagrin of those in attendance, Guerrero Jr. showed off the strike-zone acuity his father never bothered - or needed - to develop, taking three walks, adding a sacrifice fly (really, a sacrifice liner), and grounding out to second base in his final plate appearance.
"It was crazy," said Bisons catcher Danny Jansen, a highly touted prospect in his own right. "When he got up, the fans were going nuts. And they have a right to, because he's an absolute stud."
The following night, the Bisons took the field just as most folks were getting off work, their doubleheader - comprised of two seven-inning games - against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs getting underway at 5:30. The early start notwithstanding, a crowd of 7,135 filed in to watch Guerrero Jr. collect his first Triple-A hit, a laser single to left field, in a 1-for-3 showing in Game 1 (the Bisons lost 1-0). Each time he walked to the plate, those in the stands perked up. When he was rung up on a borderline pitch in his first at-bat, the crowd voiced its unanimous displeasure with the home plate umpire. And after Guerrero Jr. stroked that one-out single in the bottom of the sixth, more than a few spectators tried valiantly to spark a standing ovation.
Many stuck around for the nightcap even though Guerrero Jr. was held out of the lineup.
Then, on Thursday, a whopping 10,221 people poured through the turnstiles for a 1:00 p.m. getaway day game, throngs of them - mostly bedecked in Toronto Blue Jays gear - arriving two hours before first pitch. Guerrero Jr. promptly delighted them all, lacing a first-inning double that clanked off the top of the wall in left-center and missing his first Triple-A home run by a few feet. For the day, he finished 1-for-3 with a walk in a 6-4 loss.
All told, in his first series with the Bisons, Guerrero Jr. went 2-for-7 (.286) with a double and four walks, good for a .929 OPS, and made a couple of fine defensive plays at third base. He also ushered an unprecedentedly large contingent of extranational Blue Jays fans into Coca-Cola Field.
"When Marcus Stroman was here as a prospect, folks came down and saw him," said Bisons play-by-play announcer Pat Malacaro, who's been with the club for the last 19 years. "I know when Jose Bautista was here on a rehab assignment, we definitely saw an influx of fans - it was a weekend series, so that helped as well. There have been a couple of guys that have rehabbed and we've noticed an uptick in folks coming down, but nothing to the effect of what we saw here (this series.)"
As for the locals? They were plainly outnumbered throughout the series, but they've come out in droves before, as Bisons manager Bobby Meacham can attest, and Guerrero Jr. is a good a reason as any to show up for the final few weeks of the season.
"We played here in '89 with the Bisons and it was sold out every night, so I know there's a bunch," said Meacham, who played for Buffalo - then a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate - when the team went 80-62 in 1989, finishing second in the American Association's East Division. "Hopefully, they'll get excited and want to come out and see this guy."
Indeed, no prospect on the planet compares favorably to Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays wunderkind who bears his father's name and swing - the one that got Vlad Sr. enshrined in Cooperstown last weekend. Vlad Jr. is to baseball scouts what Daniel Day-Lewis is to film critics. In its most recent Top 100 prospect rankings, Baseball America slapped an 80 on his hit tool - the highest grade one can receive - and likened him to Manny Ramirez. His power got a 70 grade. Keith Law, ESPN's resident prospect guru, had it at 80. During his 61-game stint at Double-A New Hampshire, which was interrupted in June by a knee injury that sidelined him for five weeks, Guerrero Jr. put up a video-game-ish .410/.460/.668 line, with more extra-base hits (33) than strikeouts (27). Were it not for the injury, he likely would've been promoted to Buffalo weeks ago.
Presently, he is the only player in the International League who cannot legally buy alcohol in the United States. And, at the risk of belaboring the point, his dad is Vladimir Freaking Guerrero. He is, in the most flattering sense, completely ridiculous.
"It gives people coming to the games a little more to be excited about than just coming to a Bisons game," said Bisons left-hander Tim Mayza, who's spent his summer shuttling back and forth between Buffalo and Toronto. "There's a name that comes with it. And being Vlad, and hearing about all the things that he can do and all the things that he's (capable) of doing, it kind of rejuvenates things a little bit."
In short order, of course, Guerrero Jr. will be playing in Toronto, rejuvenating a club that hasn't graduated a franchise cornerstone-type player through its ranks since Carlos Delgado, who debuted with the Blue Jays six years before Vladito was born. In the interim, however, impatient fans north of the border can simply fill up the tank and book it down the Queen Elizabeth Way to catch a glimpse of the bright future that awaits.
With two months to go in what has been a second straight dismal season in Toronto, they will. They are.
At the official team store at Coca-Cola Field - which, in terms of size, evokes a walk-in closet - the most prominently featured mannequin is adorned in a Bisons road jersey, grey with red lettering, bearing Guerrero Jr.'s name on the back. After tax, they go for $130.50 USD apiece (roughly $170 CAD). Ahead of Wednesday's doubleheader, four 20-something pals from the Greater Toronto Area - all Blue Jays fans - popped in to peruse. Three of them walked out with Guerrero Jr. jerseys.
Splurging for a Vlad Jr. jersey, even one that'll be out of fashion by next April (a day after he's denied a full year of MLB service time, I reckon), is understandable. After all, the Blue Jays - then under the stewardship of Alex Anthopoulos - also threw financial restraint out the window to get their hands on Guerrero Jr. in 2015, when they forked over $3.9 million to lock up the 16-year-old. (Guerrero Jr.'s signing bonus, for the sake of context, dwarfs Kevin Pillar's 2018 salary by $650,000.)
Despite the Blue Jays' dubious track record of turning minor-league talents into major-league stars, Guerrero Jr. is, in every sense, the guy to invest in, financially and emotionally. He is the prospect who demands you play hooky from work and cross the border to watch. He is the prospect to which all future prospects will be compared. And now that he's holed up in Buffalo, a literal and figurative step away from Toronto, his days as a prospect are numbered.
Just don't tell that to anyone from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.