In town for winter tour with Blue Jays, Guerrero says no talks on long-term deal yet

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TORONTO – A Q+A session gave the students of Humewood Community School a chance to put the Toronto Blue Jays on the spot and one girl, wearing a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. T-shirt, took full advantage of the opportunity.

“What team was the easiest to play this (past) year?” she asked bravely, drawing some laughs from those around her and a drawn-out ooh from the event emcee, Sportsnet broadcaster Jamie Campbell.

Adam Cimber, Santiago Espinal, Chris Bassitt, Jordan Romano, Kevin Kiermaier and Guerrero exchanged grins before the slugging first baseman took a mic from interpreter Hector Lebron.

“The Yankees,” he said with a smile, triggering a loud cheer.

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Just as he knows his way around a batter’s box, Guerrero also knows how to play to a crowd, leaving the gathered students with a memorable moment. Shortly afterwards, discussing both the school visit and being part of the club’s Winter Tour with media, he said such opportunities to connect with the community “mean a lot to me.”

“Back home in the Dominican, through my foundation, I do it also,” he continued. “Coming back to Toronto, with the kids and all of the fans, it’s unbelievable. It’s great.”

So too are his contributions to the Blue Jays, even in a strong 132-OPS+ season in 2022 that could be considered a somewhat down-year after his monster 2021. Guerrero focused on building strength and increasing flexibility during the off-season and said, “I feel a lot stronger than the last couple of years,” which should worry American League pitchers.

If he’s the give-Shohei-Ohtani-a-run-for-his-money-for-MVP version of himself, he just might carry the Blue Jays to the moon. 

Lurking in the background, however, especially at this point of the baseball calendar, is his longer-term baseball future and what feels like a window of opportunity to get a major deal done.

While Guerrero is under contractual control for three more years and extensions can be signed at any time, keeping the 23-year-old from the enticing possibilities of free agency only gets tougher the closer the open market gets.

Guerrero and the Blue Jays avoided arbitration last week by agreeing on a $14.5-million salary for 2023 and often, players and clubs use talks in the run-up as a springboard to exploring bigger-picture possibilities. But, “this year we haven’t had the conversations yet,” said Guerrero. “I’m going to stay focused on working hard and let my team take care of that.”

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Now, nothing should be read into the timing, as the Blue Jays, fresh off an active off-season and still managing the ongoing renovation of Rogers Centre, have an entire spring training to consider and engage on a deeper dive.

Still, the baseball market this winter offers both cautionary tales and notable trends that suggest acting sooner than later makes sense.

On the don’t-let-this-happen-to-you front, the New York Yankees watched the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres woo and nearly pull Aaron Judge in free agency before re-signing the superstar for $360 million over nine years. The Boston Red Sox then watched one superstar leave when Xander Bogaerts accepted $280 million from the Padres before acting to ensure that Rafael Devers, a year away from free agency, never gets the chance with a $313.5 million extension beginning in 2024.

On the notable trends front, the deals for Judge, Bogaerts and Devers were part of the industry’s sudden shift into aggressive spending, with nine of the 40 biggest baseball contracts ever handed out over the past year. The inflationary pressure comes as more teams push either near or past the $233 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, a development that factors into a potential deal for Guerrero.

So, there’s time and runway, but there’s also not.

Amid the seismic changes, the ground on the Blue Jays also shifted on Guerrero this winter when Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., “great friends of mine, great players,” he said, were traded.

“That’s part of the business. I can’t control that,” Guerrero continued. “It is what it is and on the other hand, I just welcome the new guys and try to make them feel good.”

To that end, Guerrero feels “speed-wise, we’re going to be faster,” and that “defensively, homers, it’s going to be a more complete team. We’ll see.”

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Before that, Guerrero confirmed that he will play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, and he doesn’t anticipate much disruption to his buildup in getting ready for the mid-March event.

“I’m going to be taking at-bats, just like spring training, so I’m going to see it that way,” he explained, “that I’m playing for the Dominican but at the same time I’m getting ready for the season.”

Once there, those Yankees that Guerrero told the children of Humewood about will be waiting.

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NOTES: Closer Jordan Romano is impressed with the off-season changes to the Blue Jays roster. “Our defence is going to be as good as ever and as a pitcher, the dimensions (of the outfield wall) are kind of scooted in a little bit, I’m excited to have those guys playing behind me,” he said. … New centre-fielder Kevin Kiermaier is one key reason why the club should be much better defensively. Asked whether he still had boxes to check in his rehabilitation from late-summer hip surgery, he said, “I’m there. I feel as good as I’m able to. I go to the facility (in Dunedin) twice a week. I’m running, throwing, hitting. Doing everything. For me, it’s getting on a baseball field more and getting in baseball shape and that’s what everyone works to. You do your off-season workouts and do everything you can for the body, but it’s standing up in cleats for two or three hours at a time, people don’t understand how hard that is. I practice with the University of Tampa and I have a spring training before spring training, so I’ve always been a little ahead of the curve in years past and once again … I’m ready. I can’t wait to show you guys that.” … Right-hander Chris Bassitt, signed to a $63-million, three-year deal, is joining a new team for the second straight season. In trying to acclimate to a new group, he seeks to build relationships with “everyone,” he explained. “I’m not trying to blanket that. Just try not to force relationships. Just let them naturally build. Obviously pitching coach, head coach. But all the guys. Spring training comes around, we’re all around each other so much that it makes that pretty easy. We have a long time to get to know each other. I look forward to that.”

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