TRENTON, N.J. — A name can be as heavy as an anchor. It can hang around a neck and weigh a person down with the burden of expectations.
The New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ roster is filled with names that baseball fans easily recognize. Guerrero. Bichette. Biggio. Gurriel. Throw in a few former first-round picks and some under-the-radar talent, and New Hampshire, the Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate, is one of the most loaded teams in the minor leagues.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are at the center of it all. And if things go as planned, they’ll be at the center of the Jays’ efforts for years to come. Their early season has come under a microscope now that the greater baseball world is aware of just how special they are. In fact, the organization has limited their media availability as writers descend upon Fisher Cats games to see whether the hype is real.
The hype is very much real. And interviews with the players aren’t necessary to see how special they are.
Bo Bichette slams his bat down on the plate. He’s popped up a center-cut pitch that he could have driven to the grass, or all the way over the grass, if the brisk Trenton air would have permitted it. Big leaguers pop up fat pitches, but they don’t do it very often. Those balls need to be crushed. That’s how games are won.
This isn’t during a game. This is batting practice, before the Wednesday finale of a three-game set against the Trenton Thunder. Bichette demands greatness of himself even here.
But it shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Bichette is a stern and serious player. Quite the contrary. When Bichette isn’t venting over a bad swing in batting practice, he bounds around the cage and the dugout. He’s expressive and gregarious, not afraid of cracking a joke to Fisher Cats manager John Schneider as Schneider is interviewed.
“He loves coming to the park every day and he’s a fierce competitor,” Schneider says of the young middle infielder. “He almost demands perfection out of himself, and that’s something that we’re trying to work on, to have him take it easy on himself a little bit. But he’s a great worker, and just loves coming to the field and playing hard every day.”
Bichette is the sort of player who plays like his long mane of dark hair is on fire, and his exuberance will endear him to the fans in Toronto. Between that, his long swing and his considerable power, Bichette could turn into a Javier Baez-type, perhaps with a higher batting average.
That’s a different sort of player than his father Dante. But Bo could be a threat to make the All-Star Game like his father did, and could be a lightning rod in the Toronto batting order for years to come.
And he’s not even close to being the best player on the team.
It’s impossible to miss Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He’s not quite as tall as one would expect given his already Paul Bunyan-esque reputation, but he’s enormous for a 19-year-old. He’s incredibly strong, his lower half thick and built. It’s a body that one day may force him to move off third base. He’s not bad there now, given his ability to come in on the ball and his howitzer of an arm, but as he matures he may need to move across the diamond.
He has the bat to support playing first base. He has the bat to play anywhere.
The burden of sharing his father’s name has not slowed Guerrero for a second. If anything, he’s living up to it. There may not be a better hitter in the minor leagues than Guerrero. His feel for contact is freakish for any player. It’s terrifying for one just past his 19th birthday. Add in his enormous natural power and excellent feel for the zone, and Guerrero is nearly the platonic ideal of a middle-of-the-order wrecking ball.
One doesn’t need to be a long-in-the-tooth scout to see how special Guerrero is. Watching even just one or two of his games is enough.
On this night in Trenton, the name “Vladimir Guerrero Jr.” rings out over the stadium’s speakers. Everyone at the park tunes in to the plate a little more. Some of them are there to see him more than they are to see the Yankees’ Double-A squad. They’re braving the bitter cold and the wind off the Delaware River to see the youngest player in the Eastern League dominate.
It’s the fourth inning, and Guerrero is facing Thunder starter Domingo Acevedo. Acevedo is a good prospect in his own right, a hard-throwing right-hander with a good shot to play in the bigs some day. Vlad hits a laser the other way into the opposite-field gap. There’s no way to describe his swing but gorgeous. The cliche of the ball sounding different off the bat comes alive before the fans’ eyes. It does sound different off Guerrero’s bat.
Oh. That’ll do just fine in the big leagues.
There are some prospects who don’t require repeated viewings to show that they’re the real deal. Some of them make themselves stand out immediately. Guerrero is one of them. If it wasn’t the ringing double, it was his homer to dead center off the batter’s eye.
Guerrero probably won’t be on the team when the Fisher Cats return to Trenton in June, as long as there aren’t any bumps in the road. He’ll be with Triple-A Buffalo, or, perhaps, in Toronto. He’s talented enough to surface this year. It’s simply a matter of staying ahead of the pitchers who are trying and failing to solve the puzzle of his swing, and whether the Blue Jays are competing deep into the summer. If they are, he could be wowing not just Double-A, but the world.
Of course, there’s much more to the Fisher Cats than Bichette and Guerrero. Lourdes Gurriel hits behind the two of them in the batting order. He’s the brother of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Signed for $22 million after defecting from Cuba, Gurriel wasn’t overly impressive in his first year in affiliated ball. This year is different.
“I think last year was a real adjustment year for him in terms of culture, coming over from Cuba,” Schneider says. “Getting his feet underneath him, just playing professional baseball here and he’s done a great job in the offseason, coming in to Spring Training. He had a great camp in the big league camp. He’s made huge strides offensively and defensively.”
This could be a big year for Gurriel. Some evaluators considered him to be more talented than his brother when they were playing overseas, and he’s still just 24 years old.
There’s another legacy player here too. Cavan Biggio, son of Astros star and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, is an infielder for the team. Cavan struggled at High-A Dunedin last year, and is off to a slow start again. It wasn’t just his name that got him taken in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, though. Not every route to the big leagues is a straight line, and Biggio may need an adjustment to get there. The Jays wouldn’t have put him at Double-A if they didn’t have faith in him.
The team also boasts former first-rounder catcher Max Pentecost, first-round pitcher Jon Harris, and second-round pick Sean Reid-Foley. There’s also Jonathan Davis, a speedy center fielder with a knack for good contact, and Jordan Romano, an intriguing right-hander with an easy, repeatable delivery and quality stuff.
Schneider is enamored with his roster’s depth.
“Connor Panas hit 21 home runs in the Florida State League last year,” he says. “Gunnar Heidt was an All-Star in this league. Andrew Case was an All-Star in this league. So it’s a good team, and it’s cool that [Bichette and Guerrero] get a lot of attention, because I think it opens up people’s eyes with those other guys too.”
He isn’t wrong. A player like Davis may not be overly well-known in prospect-watching circles, but those who come to see Bichette and Guerrero will be seeing him too. The Fisher Cats are more than their two young stars, and they look like as good a pick as any to win the Eastern League.
Naturally, the potential of a farm team cannot be measured in its chances to win its league. If players like Guerrero and Bichette excel, they’ll leave New Hampshire behind for Triple-A Buffalo. The primary purpose of these teams is not to win but to grow future big-leaguers. It’s not hard to envision Guerrero going up the ladder in a few months’ time, and then Bichette following along some time after.
The two will be forever linked if they stay with the Jays for the long term. They burst onto the scene at the same time. They’re friends. Bichette wrapped his arm around Guerrero’s broad shoulders during batting practice and cracked jokes with him. It was Bichette who was on deck when Guerrero hit his walk-off home run at Olympic Stadium in Montreal to end spring training, and Bichette who leapt high into the air in audulation as the ball sailed into the seats.
It’s too early to say whether Josh Donaldson will re-sign with the Blue Jays in the coming months. Even if he does, his days as the face of the franchise may be numbered. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a singularly talented player, the sort of hitter who comes along only a few times in a generation. His father led a Canadian franchise, and before long, he will likely do the same.
Behind him will be a number of talented young men, some of whom are already on the big-league roster. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will likely be there when Guerrero’s time comes, as will Roberto Osuna. Highly-regarded outfield prospect Anthony Alford has already collected his first big league hit.
Bichette will come with him, as will others. The Fisher Cats are much more than Guerrero, but he is the most important player in the organization. The future of the team is on his shoulders. He is up to the task.
No, the weight of their family names does not hinder Guerrero, Bichette and the others. It only increases the expectations.
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