Han­dling the hype

Blue Jays pre­par­ing prospects to deal with high ex­pec­ta­tions

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - STEVE BUFFERY

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Blue Jays gen­eral man­ager Ross Atkins has found an­other rea­son for fans to get ex­cited about prized prospect Vladimir Guer­rero Jr. aside from his prow­ess with a bat and the fact that he’s met ev­ery chal­lenge on his way to the big leagues with vir­tual ease.

Dur­ing a break at the MLB GM Meet­ings at the Omni La Costa Re­sort & Spa on Tues­day, Atkins raved about yet an­other part of the 19-year-old third base­man’s game.

“His rou­tine. His rou­tines have re­ally im­proved,” said Atkins. “I even think the set­back with the knee (Guer­rero suf­fered a strained patel­lar lig­a­ment in his left knee in June) ended up be­ing a pos­i­tive be­cause it so­lid­i­fied a bet­ter rou­tine — a bet­ter phys­i­cal rou­tine on how he pre­pares, how he re­cov­ers, how he rests.”

Atkins be­lieves that the right rou­tine will ul­ti­mately aid in his de­fence at third and even help in his stay­ing healthy. Guer­rero is a teenager, but he’s also a 6-foot-1, 245-pound man who will have to watch his weight through­out his ca­reer. A good rou­tine, Atkins said, is cru­cial for any suc­cess­ful big lea­guer and he said Guer­rero has fallen into a good one now. An­other part of Guer­rero’s de­vel­op­ment that has Atkins ex­cited is the way he’s han­dling the hype.

“How well he’s han­dled how much I’m talk­ing about him, how much ev­ery­one in Toronto’s talk­ing about him,” said Atkins, who be­lieves Guer­rero will ab­so­lutely be men­tally ready to play in the bigs, and in a big mar­ket like Toronto, when he even­tu­ally joins the Jays next spring. The GM said Guer­rero and the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s other top prospects have been schooled on what it takes to han­dle play­ing the Ma­jor Leagues and how to cre­ate a win­ning at­mos­phere once they ar­rive.

“There are groups that (we have) formed in and around him to ed­u­cate him and oth­ers on what it means to cre­ate and foster a win­ning en­vi­ron­ment and what is lead­er­ship in base­ball ,” Atkins said .“Ask­ing ques­tions of he and Bo (Bichette) and Ca­van (Big­gio) about how are we go­ing to cre­ate the best pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment to have suc­cess. And po­ten­tial dis­trac­tions are a part of that. We’re pro­vid­ing the struc­ture, we’re pro­vid­ing the re­sources, we’re pro­vid­ing the ed­u­ca­tion and the ex­am­ples, and Vladdy and oth­ers are em­brac­ing that.”

Happ still in play for the Jays

Atkins said at his sea­son-end­ing me­dia con­fer­ence that the Jays were open to bring­ing pitcher J.A. Happ back. Not only is Happ still one of the best left-handed starters in base­ball, the Jays covet his lead­er­ship and would love him to an­chor their ro­ta­tion.

But, a re­turn to the Jays seems un­likely. At 36, it’s doubt­ful Happ would want to re­join a team that is still 2-3 years from con­tend­ing, even though the vet­eran pitcher has pro­fessed his love for Toronto. Ru­mours are that Happ could land an­other multi-year con­tract at around $13-mil­lion a year, or slightly more. The L.A. Dodgers may be in­ter­ested (ac­cord­ing to MLB.com) if HyunJin Ryu de­clines the team’s qual­i­fy­ing of­fer. The Yanks are said to be in­ter­ested in bring­ing him back. The Cincin­nati Reds are re­port­edly in­ter­ested in him as well.

“J.A. is one of my fa­vorite peo­ple in base­ball,” said Atkins. “Just how he treats the game, how he treats peo­ple in it, how he pre­pares, how he per­forms. We would love to have him back here and I would imag­ine there will be a great deal of com­pe­ti­tion for him.”

Jays fly­ing un­der the radar

There is al­ways a buzz around teams at GM and Win­ter Meet­ings that are con­sid­ered con­tenders go­ing into the next sea­son. Clubs on the verge of win­ning are usu­ally look­ing to add a ma­jor piece to their ros­ter via free agency or trade to put them over the top. There’s no great Toronto Blue Jays buzz at these meet­ings. Atkins main­tains that his pri­or­ity is to add pitch­ing depth to a team that is deep in young in­field and out­field tal­ent.

“We feel on the po­si­tion player side, that’s go­ing to be a lot of fun (next sea­son),” said Atkins. “We have a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for that open­ing day lineup but I won’t be writ­ing it. (Man­ager) Char­lie (Mon­toyo) will be.”

Smoak in their eyes

Re­port­edly the most sought-af­ter mem­ber of the Jays by other teams this off-sea­son has been first base­man Justin Smoak, who was named a Gold Glove fi­nal­ist this year for the first time in his ca­reer.

Even though the Jays are re­build­ing, the 31-year-old Smoak has ex­pressed his de­sire to re­main in Toronto. Smoak had a had a break­out year in 2017 and while his 2018 num­bers weren’t as great, he was tied for first on the team in home runs (25) and led the Jays in RBI (77) and OBP (.350). Smoak’s value in a trade would be even greater near the end of next sea­son with teams in con­tention look­ing for help to get into the play­offs or get deep in the post-sea­son.

Jays in­ter­ested in Kikuchi

MLB.com’s Gre­gor Chisholm has re­ported that Ja­panese left-han­der Yu­sei Kikuchi, con­sid­ered by some to be a top 15 free agent this sea­son, could be among a hand­ful of freeagent start­ing pitch­ers the Jays might try to sign.

The Seibu Li­ons, Kikuchi’s club in Ja­pan’s Nip­pon Pro­fes­sional Base­ball, has agreed to make the 27-year-old avail­able via the post­ing sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple re­ports.

One of NPB’s top pitch­ers for the past hand­ful of sea­sons, Kikuchi posted a 3.08 ERA and 1.03 WHIP with 153 strike outs over 163.2 in­nings last sea­son and owns a ca­reer ERA of 2.81 in eight years in Ja­pan.

Over­heard in Carlsbad

Atkins was asked many teams have shown in­ter­est in Mar­cus Stro­man at these meet­ings. Atkins an­swered in the af­fir­ma­tive, adding :“But no one likes Mar­cus more than we do. We value him the most and I sup­pose that could change or some­one val­ues him more than us. And we would lis­ten. But right now we def­i­nitely like him more than any other team.” ... The San Fran­cisco Gi­ants have of­fered Dodgers gen­eral man­ager Farhan Zaidi, who was born in Sud­bury, Ont., the ti­tle of pres­i­dent of base­ball op­er­a­tions within their or­ga­ni­za­tion, tweeted MLB.com’s Jon Morosi ... The Yan­kees reached an agree­ment to bring back vet­eran pitcher CC Sa­bathia on a oneyear, $8-mil­lion deal, ac­cord­ing to ESPN.

CHRIS­TIAN PETERSEN/GeTTy imaGes

Toronto’s top prospect, Vladimir Guer­rero Jr., bats dur­ing the Ari­zona Fall League All-Star Game on Satur­day at Sur­prise Sta­dium in Sur­prise, Ariz.

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