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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Estevan Florial Show Off In Rehab Games

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Photo by Ed Wolfstein)

TAMPA, Fla. — After looking at the lineups for Monday’s Gulf Coast League tilt between Yankees and Blue Jays prospects, one could easily be excused for thinking Sunday’s Futures Game festivities had extended an extra day.

On one side was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays’ teen phenom and the No. 1 prospect in the sport. On the other side, batting leadoff, was Estevan Florial, the top position player in a stacked Yankees system.

Both were rehabbing injuries — Guerrero a strained left patellar tendon and Florial a fractured bone in his right wrist — and both quickly showed the small gathering of onlookers at the Yankees’ minor league complex that they were nearly ready to return to regular-season action.

Florial opened the game with an opposite-field home run — his third longball in eight games bouncing between the Yankees’ two GCL clubs — an extremely positive sign for a player rehabbing an injury to his wrist.

"I’m feeling pretty good,” Florial said. "I’m feeling good swinging. The most important part is to get my wrist healthy so I can come back after that.”

Even before the injury, the 20-year-old Florial’s season had not gone quite as he’d planned. With high Class A Tampa, he’d hit just .246/.353/.343 with one home run and 10 RBIs. This came after a breakout year during which the Yankees steadfastly refused to trade him during their multiple midsummer trades.

Perhaps more concerning, Florial had struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances with Tampa before the injury, although he backed it up with a 13.5-percent walk rate as well. Much like fastball command for a pitcher, plate discipline is where prospects and suspects begin to separate themselves from one another.

"I was kind of fighting it with Tampa, in the Florida State League,” Florial said. "It wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t that bad. I think it was so-so. I was trying to make more contact with the ball. I have to try to get better at that. I had a couple problems with the changeup. … I was swinging at a lot of balls, so I need to wait for my pitch to drive.”

Guerrero, on the other hand, did everything asked of him and more at the plate with Double-A New Hampshire before his knee started barking. The 19-year-old was hitting a stunning .407/.457/.667 with 11 homers in 53 games in his first try at the upper levels.

His defense still needed work, though, and early in the game he showed he was nearly ready to return to action in that regard as well. He dove to his left to spear a hard grounder, then recovered in time to throw out the runner at first.

Anyone who’s watched Guerrero for even a game knows he has all the ingredients to be one of the best hitters in the sport. Multiple scouts surveyed by Baseball America before the season went so far as to project as 80-grade hitter on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.

"It’s always a comforting feeling knowing that when you challenge prospects that they both handle that challenge and find ways to get better,” Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim said. "He did both of those things going to Double-A as a 19-year-old. It was very exciting to see that progress.”

But if he doesn’t continue to work on his defense, he’ll wind up playing somewhere other than third base when he reaches Toronto. For their part, the Blue Jays are extremely pleased with the strides he’s made since the beginning of the season.

"Defensive footwork and angles have been a priority with him for most of the season,” Kim said. "Again, from our infield coordinator Danny Solano to Andy Fermin—who does the infield up there—to (New Hampshire manager) John Schneider(^) … everybody kind of partnered together to help Vlad with a plan to challenge him each day and help him with that, and subjectively you could say he’s gotten better.”

Guerrero has played three games in the GCL, and could soon be on his way back to an affiliate — either New Hampshire or Triple-A Buffalo — to continue what he started back in April. The wait has been long for both he and Florial, but the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to become much brighter.

NOTES: Florial played for the Yankees’ GCL West squad, which featured some pretty interesting prospects behind him in the lineup. Chief among them was outfielder Antonio Cabello, whom Baseball America ranked as the No. 15 prospect available on last year’s international market. He signed with New York just before last Christmas.

After a brief stop in the Dominican Summer League, Cabello came stateside and hasn’t stopped hitting. The 17-year-old swatted his fourth home run of the season on Monday, and thus far has put together a .338/.434/.676 line in the GCL. Of his 24 hits, 13 have gone for extra bases.

"I think the talent and the tools speak for themselves,” manager David Adams said, speaking about Cabello and teammate Roberto Chirinos. "What people don’t see is what kind of people they are inside. They’re guys who show up every day ready for the grind. They’re good leaders and people and they do things the right way, and I think that’s what people need to take notice of.”

Chirinos, also 17 years old, went 1-for-4 and scored a run in his team’s win. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 20 player on the 2017 international market.

Shortstop Logan Warmoth also rehabbed with the GCL Blue Jays on Monday and went 1-for-3. Jordan Groshans, the Texas high school shortstop whom Toronto drafted with the No. 12 overall pick this season, went 2-for-3 with a run and a walk. He’s hitting .362 in his pro debut.

The Blue Jays’ high Class A affiliate also showcased a bit of talent on Monday evening. Starting pitcher Patrick Murphy, who has battled through a series of injuries over the course of his career, was electric in his team’s win over Florida.

The 23-year-old righthander pounded the strike zone all night with a mid-90s fastball peaked at 98 on multiple occasions en route to seven innings of two-run ball. He coupled the pitch with a power curveball in the low 80s that he landed and buried for strikeouts. He also showed off a firm changeup in the high 80s.

He made arguably one mistake all night, a 96 mph fastball that Florida outfielder Isranel Wilson crushed over the wall in right-center field.

"We were lucky to score two runs,” Florida manager Luis Salazar said. "This guy’s got major league stuff. He challenged the hitters with fastballs up to 98 and with a nasty breaking ball. Our guys had a tough time picking him up. He hit his spots really well … I think that’s the best guy I’ve seen all year.”

Dunedin shortstop Kevin Smith, the Blue Jays’ fourth-rounder from a year ago, crunched his 17th homer of the season when he deposited a hanging curveball from reliever Troy Bacon over the left-field wall.

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