Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
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Ross Atkins: ‘I just don’t see [Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.] as a major league player.’

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Spring training has begun. That means it’s time for team executives to do their annual song-and-dance, which is to get in front of a microphone and disingenuously make up reasons why their top prospects won’t be major league-ready until just after their clubs secure an extra year of contractual control. We saw it most strikingly with Kris Bryant back in 2015, but it happens every year with the latest crop of can’t-miss prospects across the league.

Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is currently baseball’s No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs. The son of a Hall of Famer, Guerrero put up incredible numbers in the minors last year with Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, batting .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 408 plate appearances. Guerrero really has nothing left to prove in the minors. The Blue Jays, currently slated to start Brandon Drury at third base, would be a better and more interesting team with Guerrero in the lineup on Opening Day. The Jays, however, lost 89 games last year and 86 games the year prior, and are currently not in the business of being “better” or “interesting.”

MLB Network Radio had Jays GM Ross Atkins on as a guest on Tuesday. Atkins, unsurprisingly, set the stage for Guerrero to open the season in the minors. The quote from the snippet MLB Network Radio provided:

Our vision, it really comes down to development. I just don’t see him as a major league player. Just pencil him in and it’s done. He’s 19. He has accomplished everything he can accomplish as an offensive player. There’s so many opportunities for him defensively and what he can do to really maximize the power and the size and the strength that he has. Everyone then points to defense, but it’s really not just about defense, it’s about him having a 15, 20-year career, starting with an incredible foundation. That’s everything that encompasses ‘teammate’ — the physical aspect, the baserunning, the defense. That physical aspect really plays into what type of offensive player he’s going to be. He has the ability to be so versatile and dynamic and we want to make sure we tap into all that potential.

We covered Bryant’s thoughts on service time manipulation last night. Despite putting up similarly awesome numbers in the minors in 2014 and having a torrid spring training showing ahead of the 2015 season, the Cubs cited Bryant’s defense as a reason to keep him in the minor leagues. Conveniently, once the Cubs secured that extra year of control, Bryant’s defense was no longer an issue. Bryant said, “I was told to work on my defense, too, and I think I got three ground balls in those games that I played” (in the minors to start the season before getting called up). Team representatives commonly cite defense because it’s still somewhat subjective, not as easy to quantify as offense. The defensive stats that are out there are not reliable, especially for minor leaguers. A team rep can just cite defense and hand-wave away the conversation.

In case there was any doubt what Atkins is up to, let us not forget that last year at Pitch Talks — a “touring, interactive baseball event” — he said, “When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about aging players and the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curves has come to an end across baseball.” Atkins, who worked under Chris Antonetti with the Indians for 15 years, is very well aware of what he is entrusted to do with the Blue Jays’ payroll. Speeding up Guerrero’s track to free agency is not on the agenda, no matter how good his numbers in the minor leagues are. The Blue Jays and Cubs aren’t a couple of stray offenders; every team manipulates their top prospects’ service time. It is clearly one issue (of many) that needs to be addressed during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement.

This Day in Transaction History: Padres pawn off James Shields

James Shields
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For a few years, starter James Shields was quite dominant. From 2011-14 with the Rays and Royals, the right-hander made a minimum of 33 starts each season with a 3.17 ERA. He peaked in ’11, finishing with a 2.82 ERA and finishing third in American League Cy Young balloting.

Shields leveraged that 2011-14 run into a four-year, $75 million contract with the Padres, inked in February 2015. It wasn’t an outright disaster of a contract for the Padres, but Shields did not live up to expectations. In his first year with the Padres, he posted a 3.91 ERA. Through the first two months of the 2016 season, Shields allowed 32 earned runs over 67 1/3 innings. The Padres, however, scored only 22 runs in his 11 games, so he was 2-7 after 11 starts. Shields also gave up one of the more memorable home runs in recent history on May 7, 2016:

On June 4, the Padres moved Shields and $27 million of the $58 million remaining on his contract to the White Sox. The White Sox gave up pitcher Erik Johnson and an infield prospect named Fernando Tatís Jr.

If the White Sox had a do-over button, they would have pressed it. Shields, 34 at the time of the trade, had a disastrous rest of the 2016 season, posting a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts for the White Sox. He finished out the remainder of his contract in Chicago, registering a 5.23 ERA in 2017 and a 4.53 ERA in ’18. Shields went into free agency but went unsigned and hasn’t pitched since.

Johnson flamed out after the 2016 season, yielding 20 runs in 19 2/3 innings in four starts for the Padres. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017 and spent the ’18 campaign between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso.

Tatís, as we know now, was the jewel of the trade. The White Sox signed Tatís as a 16-year-old as a free agent. A year later, before he ever appeared in a professional game in the White Sox organization, he was moved in a big trade. While it took him a couple of years to appear on top-100 prospect lists, his talent was readily apparent. In 2017, Tatís spent most of his season with Single-A Fort Wayne. He accrued 26 doubles, 21 homers, 29 stolen bases, 69 RBI, and 78 runs scored in 518 trips to the plate. Going into the 2018 season, Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus each ranked him among the top-10 prospects in the game.

Tatís was off to another great start in 2018. Through 88 games, he had a .286/.355/.507 line with 22 doubles, 16 homers, 16 stolen bases, 43 RBI, and 77 runs scored spanning 394 plate appearances. Sadly, in mid-July, Tatís broke his left thumb and suffered ligament damage while making a head-first slide. He recovered from the injury, playing in the Dominican Winter League and having another strong performance over 23 games. Tatís followed that up with a productive spring training, giving the Padres only one choice. He began the season on the Opening Day roster and jumped out to become one of baseball’s best players.

Over his first 84 games as a major leaguer, Tatís batted .317/.379/.590 with 13 doubles, six triples, 22 home runs, 16 steals, 53 RBI, and 61 runs scored over 372 plate appearances. Baseball Reference put him at 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. Sadly, similar to 2018, Tatís suffered a season-ending injury, a stress reaction in his lower back. At the time, he was neck-and-neck with Pete Alonso and Mike Soroka in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The injury allowed Alonso to win the award in a landslide while Tatís finished third.

While the White Sox would have loved to have Tatís at third base, they did end up finding some quality players in Yoán Moncada at the hot corner and Tim Anderson at shortstop. The White Sox and their young corps are close to being competitive again, but having Tatís in tow certainly would have sped up the process. And the Padres likely never would have gotten Tatís if they hadn’t inked Shields first.