Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should be in the big leagues right now. Baseball's consensus top prospect and the future of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise should be sitting in the dugout in Toronto, soaking up the big league atmosphere, learning from big league instructors, and making adjustments against big league pitching.
Guerrero is not in Toronto. He will not earn big league checks or take his first big league at-bat in 2018. He is instead cooling his heels at home, the minor league season complete, waiting for Arizona Fall League to begin in October.
Guerrero should be on the big league roster now because he has earned it. If dominating the competition at the two highest levels of minor league baseball despite being the youngest player in the league at all times, hitting .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs in 95 games doesn't earn you a shot, what does?
When it comes to baseball's top prospects, "earning it" isn't enough to overcome the cynical interests of their employers, powered by the dubious rationale that holding their top prospects in the minor leagues for a few extra weeks provides the team an extra year of "control" over the player. It is not expressly against the rules, which provides all the cover required for owners and management to sleep soundly.
Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro recently went on MLB Network radio and rattled off a host of dubious reasons to keep his top prospect away from the big leagues until next season. Shapiro insisted it was not about business, but about the way the team believes he will best develop.
Guerrero needs to work on his baserunning, the club president insists. He needs to work on his defense and his preparation, fans are told. And the best place to accomplish all these goals, according to the official company line, is Arizona later this fall.
We're to believe that this is best developed alone, away from the team invested solely in his success. Not learning about preparation and leadership from established and well-paid big league peers like Russell Martin, or receiving baserunning and defensive instruction from the best the organization has to offer—the coaches at the big league level.
With respect to the Blue Jays public stance, though, there are some worthwhile reasons to keep Guerrero off the big league roster. The club faces a serious roster crunch this offseason, as there are only 40 spots on the expanded roster and the club could lose out on intriguing minor leaguers to the Rule 5 draft, which prevents teams from holding players in the minor leagues indefinitely.
As the practice becomes both common and widely acknowledged across baseball, front offices have grown more cavalier in discussing the motivating factors between player development decisions. Minnesota Twins GM Thad Levine admitted earlier this week that "we're supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make," when asked about his decision to keep former top prospect Byron Buxton off his team's roster this September. It was a great moment in saying the quiet parts out loud, a bold option Shapiro refused in favour of the modern orthodoxy of misdirection regarding soft-skill development.
Guerrero Jr. is unique in that, at just 19 years old, his bat is a finished product. There is no level of pitching he's not ready to handle, even if the other aspects of his game lag behind (and they always will). But to suggest the last few elements of his game are better developed anywhere but in Toronto insults the intelligence of anyone bothering to pay attention.
Players like Guerrero don't come along often. The onus belongs on the team to keep generational talents like this in the fold no matter when they reach free agency. To nickel and dime both the player and the fans does everyone a disservice, no matter how smartly it exploits loopholes in the collective bargaining agreement.