This article originally appeared in the Oct. 27, 1996 issue of Baseball America.
MONTREAL—The craggy-toothed smile that lights up in a split second is still present as Vladimir Guerrero first steps onto the field at Olympic Stadium to take batting practice as a September callup.
So, too, is the humility that has been Guerrero’s calling card as much as his awe-inspiring statistics. Is he surprised to be called up from Double-A? How does he expect to be used? Guerrero just smiles, stares into a phalanx of cameras, and shrugs.
“He feels happy,” says Expos first base coach Luis Pujols, who acts as Guerrero’s translator. “And he says that from what he understands, plans are that he will be here next year, too.”
Oh, right. Go ahead and insult Moises Alou, the manager’s son yet. But know what? No one can argue with Guerrero’s assessment, couldn’t even if he had delivered it in a bragging tone instead of a quiet, matter-of-fact one.
“Vladimir knows his time will come and that a lot of good things are going to come his way,” Expos manager Felipe Alou says, discussing a player in whom he’s taken fatherly interest since seeing him play in winter baseball. “He’s a humble, dedicated person. You won’t ever see this boy on a cellular phone talking to Charles Schwab.
“There was a player from the Dominican, a legendary player, named Pepe Lucas, who went to play in Puerto Rico when he was 16. He was a skinny guy and he was being paid $100 a month. The owner of the team walked into the clubhouse and saw him in his uniform. He said, ‘You look like a pretty good player,’ and so he gave him a raise to $150. Then he saw him swing the bat in BP and he said, ‘I’m going to give you another $50 raise.’
“The man doubled his salary without seeing the man play a game and that’s the type of player Vladimir Guerrero is. You see him in a uniform, and right away you want to double whatever he’s making. This boy is a baseball machine.”
The Expos can only hope so, because in the assembly line that is their minor league system, Guerrero is The Next One, the inheritor of a tradition that started with Andre Dawson and Tim Raines and has been continued by Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker and Cliff Floyd and Rondell White.
Guerrero was named Eastern League MVP this season, leading the Harrisburg Senators to a championship while hitting .360-19-78 in 118games. He already had batted .363-5-18 in 20 games at Class A West Palm Beach, and scored 100 runs between the two levels.
The Expos decided to start Guerrero in the Florida State League because he was coming off minor knee surgery, though that surgery wasn’t enough to keep him out of the Dominican winter league playoffs. And all year there was a kind of guessing game being played.
Would Guerrero jump up yet another level? “We think it’s enough right now to challenge him with two levels in one year,” general manager Jim Beattie said then. Complicating matters was the fact that the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx were having a horrible season.
“I think he’s at the right place right now,” Felipe Alou said one day while Guerrero played at Harrisburg. “But after this season? Only God knows where the right place will be for Vladimir Guerrero.”
To say Guerrero wowed the Eastern League is an understatement. The 20- year-old from the Dominican town of Nizao Bani was named Expos minor league player of the month an unprecedented three consecutive times (April, May and June) and hit safely in 25 of 26 games following his promotion to Double-A.
Reading Phillies pitching coach Larry Andersen says Guerrero’s tools remind him of Roberto Clemente. Carmen Fusco, a Mets scout who has seen the Eastern League for 20 years, says Guerrero is “as complete a player as I’ve seen,” while Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette says Guerrero has “every tool it’s possible to find in a player.”
With Moises Alou about to price himself out of Montreal’s budget, leaving the club with the distinct possibility of trading him or losing him to free agency, Guerrero figures largely in the Expos’ plans for 1997.
“If this kid goes down to winter ball and has a good season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him come in spring training and make the team and stay there. Not at all,” Trenton Thunder manager Ken Macha says. “He could be a really remarkable player.”
Ask Guerrero what aspect of his season pleased him the most, and he’ll say it was his ability to stay healthy, along with an unusually low strikeout total (52 in 497 at-bats) for a young power hitter.
“What I try to do when I get two strikes against me is protect even more of the strike zone, turn into even more of a contact hitter,” says Guerrero, a self-described perfectionist.
“Vladimir has a huge strike zone,” Macha says. “Of course, he can have that big strike zone because even when the pitch is out of it he’s going to get some part of the bat on the ball. We threw him a changeup at his ankles one time. He hit a double off it.”
“Our scouts say he’s going to be an all-phases contributor,” says Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone, who was with the Expos when Guerrero signed three years ago. “They say he’s head and shoulders above anybody at Double-A right now, that he’s going to be a superstar.
“Rondell White and Cliff Floyd were in that league—and considered prospects. But this kid, well, he has Rondell’s makeup and work habits but more power. When he’s done growing, he could be built pretty close to Cliff. His arm is better than theirs put together.”
The one knock against Guerrero, such as it is, is his speed. But outgoing Expos farm director Bill Geivett says that the club noticed his speed was much better this season.
“I got him at 4.13 to first base,” Geivett says. “His speed up until this year was the only part of his game that wasn’t plus. It was major league average. Since the surgery, though, it’s improved to the point where it, too, has to be ranked in the ‘plus’ category.”
It wasn’t always this way for Guerrero. The Dodgers didn’t think all that much of him when they first saw him at their Dominican academy. Ralph Avila, the man who oversees the Los Angeles operations in the Dominican Republic, admits that even though the Dodgers had first crack at Guerrero, the Expos “had better eyes and, maybe most importantly, better ears” than his own organization.
The Dodgers had him in their Dominican facility, along with brother Wilton, whom they signed. Before them, the Dodgers had their older brother Albino, who soon was released.
“Vladimir was very weak when we saw him and wasn’t running well at all,” Avila says. “We were hoping he would be like Wilton. But to us he looked more like his other brother, who was really slow. In this business, you consider yourself a success if five percent of the guys you sign make it to the majors.
“He’ll be part of the Expos’ five percent, not ours. And that’s how it works some times.”
Is Guerrero worried at all about the pressure of heavy expectations? There’s that smile again.
“No,” he says simply. “That’s one thing I won’t worry about.”
Beattie has been around outstanding young players before, specifically in his capacity as Mariners farm director. That being the case, the obvious comparison begging to be made with Guerrero is to Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
Can Guerrero reasonably be expected to have the same kind of quick impact as Rod riguez did this year?
“I think that talent-wise Vladimir is pretty close to Alex,” Beattie says. “If you’re talking natural ability, they’re pretty close, although you have to keep in mind that with Alex you’re talking about somebody who is playing a key defensive position.
“Alex was also a very polished player and person when he came up. He was comfortable with the attention he was getting from baseball people and the media. In fact, it was something he enjoyed. Vladimir still doesn’t speak English, so he isn’t going to exude the same kinds of things that Alex did.
“But when you watch him on the field, it’s clear that that’s where the real source of his joy is. He’s having fun.”
Guerrero isn’t entirely unfamiliar to some of his future teammates. Righthander Pedro Martinez has faced him in the Dominican League, where Guerrero plays for Estrellas and Martinez for Licey.
“The only holes I see are in experience,” Martinez says. “I mean, I’d use my curve and my changeup to strike him out, the things you’d normally use against a younger guy.”
What, no fastball?
“I couldn’t blow that by him,” Martinez says. “I tried a couple of times, but he was right on it. He’s going to be very good, believe me. In fact, I was kind of surprised he wasn’t with us in spring training. I even asked Felipe about that.”
White played with Guerrero at Harrisburg while rehabilitating from the bruised kidney and spleen he sustained with Montreal this season. He saw the future and was favorably impressed.
“He’s going to be up with us real fast,” White said after his first game beside Guerrero. “Plus, I feel like I’m a pretty good judge of character, and he’s a good person. You can see that just by the way he goes about his business. He works hard.”
And so the Expos wait. The Next One has arrived, though not necessarily permanently. Beattie couldn’t say if it was definite that Guerrero would be in Montreal on Opening Day 1997, though most expect he will.
Montreal reporters this season had become used to the daily ritual of Felipe Alou reading out Guerrero’s statistics from the night before. On the day Guerrero arrived, the manager picked up his farm report, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into a waste basket.
“I guess we won’t be needing that anymore,” Alou said. “No, we won’t be needing it because Mr. Guerrero is here now.”