Back home in the Dominican Republic after the 2020 season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. began taking stock of a year in the majors that virtually any 21-year-old baseball player would be thrilled with and immediately decided it wasn't good enough. Sure, he'd posted a .791 OPS and a 115 OPS+ while playing in all 60 games during a wild summer in which the global pandemic forced his Toronto Blue Jays to call Buffalo, New York, home. But he'd let himself go during the COVID-19 shutdown, reported to summer camp badly overweight and then grinded through the MLB campaign while working himself into shape. That he still put up decent numbers underlined his abundance of natural talent, yet as he pondered why he was lagging behind peers and friends Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., he realized that their success was rooted in their offseason training and that he needed to work just as hard to close the gap.
"One day in my house, I just sat down and thought about all this and I decided right then that I was going to get ready," Guerrero says through interpreter Hector Lebron. "I was going to prepare myself. I was going to work very hard for (2021). And I did, because my main focus is just to be ready and help the team win any moment."
Guerrero worked relentlessly to ready himself and then began delivering on his ample promise, finishing behind two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani in the voting for American League MVP after threatening to win the Triple Crown, batting .311/.401/.601 with a league-best 48 home runs along with 111 RBIs. Having silenced all the doubters who had been emboldened by his initial growing pains, he heads into the 2022 season back at the forefront of baseball's remarkable youth movement, alongside Tatís, Soto, Acuña and other phenoms.
"I'm a fast learner," Guerrero says. "Here, you really have to work very hard, stay focused on your routine, all the work, and just put in everything so that it goes the way you want. That was, for me, the difference. I learned the process very quick, and it's just paying off."
A symbol of both Guerrero's emergence and his immense marketability came during the All-Star Week festivities in Denver. While attention centered on Ohtani, who, incredibly, started for the AL both on the mound and at DH, Guerrero launched an epic 468-foot homer off Corbin Burnes, knocked in another run and playfully hugged Max Scherzer on the mound after ripping a 111.1 mph liner up the middle that narrowly missed the ace righthander's head. His appeal was also broad enough for Major League Baseball to include him in a massive decal with Tatís, Tim Anderson and Jacob deGrom above the entrance to the Colorado Convention Center, home to the All-Star Week fan festivities.
Along with his smiling face on decorative banners hanging from lightposts all over downtown, it was a clear sign that he was now being viewed among the game's best.
"We grew up kind of on the same stage," Guerrero says of his relationship with Tatís. "All the way from the Dominican Republic, we've been coming up together, and it's just fun. Now, us being together at the All-Star Game, it's very special."
Adding to that feeling is the engaging cheer with which Guerrero bounds about the field. His playful grin was central to the joyous energy that surrounded the Blue Jays, and even interactions with opponents have tended to be jovial. During a July 7 exchange at first base with Ty France of the Seattle Mariners, captured by MLB's Mic'd Up, he laughs when asked if he is going to steal second base and then says he won't need to because he'll soon be scoring on a Randal Grichuk double. After he does just that, France walks over to an umpire and marvels at how Guerrero predicted it would happen.
In another clip later in the season, Guerrero is at first base when Soto arrives and nods in agreement as the star outfielder tells him, "Hey, you have to finish strong. We only have a month left. Let's tear it up so you can take that thing home and I'll go to your house to celebrate with you."
Beneath that, though, is the competitive spirit that helped fuel the Blue Jays to a 91-71 record with a 25-10 finish in the AL East, one game shy of the postseason despite a nomadic season in which the team called Dunedin, Fla., Buffalo and Toronto home due to pandemic border restrictions. Early in the season, Guerrero told manager Charlie Montoyo that he didn't want his workload managed and that his days off would come when the team wasn't playing. He eventually relented Aug. 1, when he sat out for the first and only time all season, jokingly taped to the dugout railing by his teammates.
Early in the campaign, when the Blue Jays spun their wheels, the bullpen frittered away games and Guerrero did damage seemingly every night, he was all smiles when the team won, upset and frustrated when it didn't. On the final day of the season, after the Blue Jays clubbed Baltimore and waited for the Yankees and Red Sox to decide their fate, Guerrero sat in the dugout watching Boston play Washington on the Rogers Centre videoboard and was dejected when Rafael Devers hit a two-run homer in the ninth that sent Toronto home.
"It hurts. Knowing that you win 91 games and you didn't make the playoffs, it really hurts me, hurts all my teammates. That's just going to make me stronger and come back next year even better than this year," Guerrero said afterwards. "Personally, I'm not satisfied with anything because we didn't make the playoffs, which is obviously my personal goal. And next year, I want to just keep working very hard to get better. That's what I've got on my mind right now."
To that end, the Blue Jays still feel Guerrero is largely just scratching the surface. The upcoming season will be just his fourth in the majors and only the second since he's adjusted both his offseason workout regimen and his diet. During the 2020 season, after he arrived in camp out of shape, he took accountability for his actions, apologized to his teammates and worked his way into better shape to finish that year out strong. He doubled down on those efforts in the winter and was rewarded with a brilliant 2021, but that was merely the beginning of his ascent, rather than his arrival at the summit.
"There are always going to be opportunities with Vladdy to maximize his power, his bat speed," says Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. "As good as his approach is, people will adjust, so how quickly can he refine and adjust to pitchers adjusting to him? And as great as the adjustments he made this last offseason were, continuing to push that forward and not rest on, OK, this is good enough for where I want to be, but just continuing to think about how can I get better."
Beyond the physical development was his growth on the mental side. Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez praises the improvements in Guerrero's routine, pointing to the focus in his pre-game swings, tied into who's starting on a given night and what he's picked up from video and advance work. Blue Jays coach John Schneider, who managed Guerrero's teams through his climb up the minors, says the new routines have led to a much better version of the player he's long known and admired.
"That's been a separator for him really compared to the last couple of years, the way he works in the cage, the way he studies how pitchers are going to attack him, understanding that is important," says Schneider. "What he was so good at in the minors was making adjustments pitch by pitch, at-bat by at-bat. He's doing a much better job of that now."
The roots of that were born out of those difficulties in 2020, which were juxtaposed against the successes of Tatís, Soto and Acuña.
"I saw the kid maturing," says Schneider. "I saw him looking around the league and seeing other players that are his age having great success and him knowing that he could do that or even a little bit more. Sometimes you don't realize you need to make a change until it kind of hits you in the face. He did, and to his credit, he tackled it head on."
So much so, that when he was at the All-Star Game with his contemporaries, he was game enough both to chirp at Tatís and to get the last laugh.
"When he flew out to left, I told him, 'Hey, you just missed that one,'" says Guerrero. "And when I hit the homer, he told me that I should have stood at the plate a little bit longer."
Guerrero more than earned that right last year, and now he can stand taller as a new season dawns after starting to meet the impossible expectations he inherited as the son of Hall of Famer Vlad Sr. The wait for his arrival as a superstar may have taken longer than some expected, and his transition to the majors may not have been as smooth as those of Tatís, Soto and Acuña, but his ceiling is just as high as any of theirs, maybe even higher. And the Blue Jays' rise is now linked to all that Guerrero will be able to achieve.
"I'm very excited about my entire team, the whole club," says Guerrero. "I know this is a team that nobody wants to come play, I got that feeling. We're just starting to get better. We feel a lot better as a group, and I'm very excited about that. I can't wait for [this] year. … I'm going to get to work harder than I did last offseason and just be ready to go to spring training."