Deft on D, Vlad Guerrero Jr., making his mark at first base for Blue Jays

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CLEVELAND — People who have seen Vlad Guerrero Jr. unleash violence on a baseball in these parts recognize that he is one of the most prolific and powerful hitters in the game.

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But as impressive as the 23-year-old has been in his young career, Guerrero is determined to prove there’s more to the man than his bat.

To that end, Guerrero’s deftness at first base this season has not only become a defensive strength for the team, but a point of pride for the player in this his fourth year in the big leagues.

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“He definitely knows (first base) is where he’s going to be for the near future and he’s going to do everything he can to be the best player he can be over there,” Jays first base coach Mark Budzinski said here in Cleveland, where Friday’s game against the Guardians was postponed due to rain.

“We always knew he was athletic. Obviously, a guy his size playing third base, which was the original plan, showed that. But he can move around. He’s got good feet. He gets his work in every day and he’s prepared to play.”

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And most of all, he’s taken ownership of the assignment.

It was three years ago that Guerrero made his first trip to this Lake Erie city, wowing the baseball world at the all-star game with his virtuoso performance in the Home Run Derby. The then 20-year-old banged out 91 homers that night, making it his official coming-out party, vaulting from prospect to emerging star.

For a variety of reasons — mostly related to his conditioning — third base became a liability for a Jays team that had far too many defensive holes, which prompted a shift of Guerrero across the diamond in 2020.

Now they have one of the best in the business at the hot corner in Matt Chapman and an agile Guerrero at first where he displays almost cat-like prowess around the bag.

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“Confidence,” Guerrero said recently, when asked to explain his strong defensive work. “You have to have the confidence and right now I feel like I’ve been playing first base all of my life.

“I’ve been trusting my teammates and all the advice the coaches have been giving me. Obviously, you have to keep working hard every day, but confidence is the key thing.”

Like almost everything Guerrero does, his play at first has a larger-than-life quality at times. The game-ending play he made on Wednesday in Toronto, digging a rare errant throw from Chapman out of the dirt, was the latest beauty — complete with a wincing stretch and quick flash of the glove.

It’s not all show, however. Guerrero is both deft and adept and believes in making plays rather than letting them come to him.

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“He plays it with exuberance and, because of that, you’ve seen a little more aggression than you probably do from a typical first baseman,” Jays GM Ross Atkins told MLB Network recently. “But he’s got great hands and really good hand-eye co-ordination. I think he’s got a chance to be very, very good there.”

You might argue he already is. Not only does Vladdy have the hands and some nimbleness to move around and get in position, but his size actually plays into his favour when Chapman or shortstop Bo Bichette make one of their acrobatic plays on the fly.

I think anybody in the infield wants a bigger target and wants a big target who has good hands,” Budzinksi said. “There are going to be times when you make throws on the run that aren’t always going to be right in the chest and you want to have a first baseman who can pick it up.

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“A smaller target, I think guys get a little more nervous and feel like they’ve got to make a perfect throw. With a bigger target you’ve got a little more from for error over there.”
Budzinski and the rest of the Jays coaching staff are pleased with the progress of Guerrero but not surprised. They’ve seen the work he puts in daily during the season and the agility work he emphasizes as part of his elite off-season regimen.

“When he got here in 2019, he wasn’t in the same shape he is now, but you could still see the footwork and the speed,” Budzinski said. “When he wants to go he can go. He can move for a big guy and I think he continues to get more used to the position over there and it shows in the way he plays.

“I think he takes pride in the fact that he knows he can pick up his infielders when there’s a throw from third or when he has to move his feet to make a play. That’s a big start for anybody — to help your teammates out — and he works at it.”

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