Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays using service time rules to keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. from majors

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the No. 1 prospect in baseball, is ready for the Majors, but MLB’s service time rules are keeping him from the big leagues

Sunday is the official day for hitters to report to camp for the Toronto Blue Jays, but the team’s biggest star showed up a day early.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the No. 1 prospect in baseball, arrived in Dunedin on Saturday with much fanfare and even more potential. Guerrero is expected to be the cornerstone for the franchise as they go into a rebuilding phase, relying on young prospects to replace the veterans that led the Blue Jays to consecutive ALCS appearances in 2015-16.

Guerrero’s contributions will have to wait, however. Because of baseball’s arcane service time rules, Guerrero is unlikely to make the team out of Spring Training. The Blue Jays have plenty of motivation to exploit the rules for their benefit. The MLB regular season consists of 187 days. Under the collective bargaining agreement, a player accrues a year of service time if they’re in the Major Leagues for 172 days. A player needs six years of service time to be eligible for free agency. If the Blue Jays keep Guerrero in the minor leagues for just 15 days, he remains under team control for an extra year.

Fielding ground balls beside Guerrero on Saturday is the man who stands to benefit if, as expected, Guerrero goes back to Triple-A Buffalo in late March. Third baseman Brandon Drury was acquired from the New York Yankees in the J.A. Happ deal at the July trade deadline last year, but injuries limited him to just eight games in Toronto.

General manager Ross Atkins, though, says Drury will likely be the team’s starting third baseman when the regular season begins March 28. Despite Guerrero’s obvious talent, Atkins also isn’t committing to any schedule to bring his star prospect to the majors.

“There is no firm timeline on when he arrives and when he is playing in Toronto for the first time,” Atkins said this week. “But we want to make sure he’s the best possible third baseman, best possible hitter he can be.”

Pitcher Marcus Stroman, though, always one to speak his mind, believes not having Guerrero in the lineup will be a big mistake. “I hope they’re putting us on the field with the best team possible to go out there and compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox on a consistent basis,” he told the Toronto Star on Sunday.

Guerrero made an immediate impact in batting practice on Saturday. Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez describes his approach with just one word: “professional.”

“He’s pretty great. He’s focused. He loves to play the game,” Martinez said. “He comes in every single day under control. He knows what he wants.”

Guerrero wouldn’t be the first to fall victim to the service time rules. In 2015 the Chicago Cubs kept their top prospect, Kris Bryant, in the minors for the first seven games. Last year the Atlanta Braves had the league’s best prospect in Ronald Acuna, but only called him up to the big league club 23 games into the season. Both Bryant and Acuna went on to win Rookie of the Year.

Atkins might say Guerrero needs more time to develop, but the soon-to-be 20-year-old already appears Major League ready. He hit .381 across four minor league levels in 2018, with 20 home runs and 78 RBI. MLB Pipeline named him Minor League Hitter of the Year. He may be young, but Acuna and the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto proved last year that age is no impediment to early success.

The Blue Jays have every financial reason to keep Guerrero in the minors, but by doing so they’re not putting their best lineup on the field. The players can complain about the rules, but there is little they can do about it, at least until the CBA expires in 2021.

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