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After dazzling 2018 season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is Blue Jays' biggest hope

When he went to spring training last year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was already a big prospect but still had plenty to prove. After all, he was just 18 years old and was starting the season at Double-A New Hampshire in the Toronto Blue Jays chain.

There were big hopes. Then came the walkoff home run for the Jays on the final day of spring training in Montreal, where his Hall of Fame father was a beloved star. That was followed by the domination of Double-A. And the standout performances over the final 30 games in Buffalo.

When he reports to Dunedin, Fla. next month, Guerrero is the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball and the can't-miss future hope of the rebuilding Blue Jays. He won't even turn 20 until March 16.

"My mind is on just doing a good job, staying focused and doing the best that I can like last year," Guerrero said through an interpreter Thursday night at the Bisons' Hot Stove Prospect Showcase in The Atrium at Rich's. "Just keep working really hard and leaving it up to God."

After batting .402 in Double-A at New Hampshire, Guerrero hit .336 with six homers and 16 RBIs in 30 games with the Bisons. When the official season ended, he played in the Arizona Fall League and was fourth in batting (.351) while continuing to show tremendous plate discipline with only six strikeouts in 77 at-bats.

Mike Harrington: Bisons fans abuzz thanks to Vladdy Jr.

"He likes to have fun on the field, likes to make sure everybody else is having fun," said Bo Bichette, Toronto's No. 2 prospect and the Bisons' likely shortstop to start the season. "He'll pick you up when you're down. And obviously he's a great player, a really good teammate. Vlad is an incredible talent. ... It's crazy to see the things he does."

A few hundred fans, who quickly reserved all available spots when the event was announced two weeks ago, gathered in the Niagara Street atrium to collect autographs from 19 Toronto prospects on hand.

Come April, Bisons' fans will likely have a week or so to get their Vladdy Jr. fix. Even though he's clearly ready to be Toronto's everyday third baseman, Guerrero is expected to start the season in Buffalo so the Blue Jays can delay his service time clock enough to get an extra year of control before he can enter free agency.

Guerrero is undeterred by the situation.

"All my life I've learned to control what I can control," he said. "I'm focused on doing the best. When I go on the field, my mind is focused on just doing what I need to do. I trust the team knows how to make decisions. I'm just focused on doing the best I can."

Guerrero was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America, USA Today and MLB Pipeline last season. When he arrived in Buffalo after a summer of building hype, there was no doubt about his hitting. The biggest revelation as he reached one rung shy of the majors was how polished he was at third base.

"Every time you show up at the field, you're thinking about how you can get better," he said. "For me, it's not just hitting but the defense or any other ways. So I'm always trying to improve. Everything is important. I'm focused on the physical part of it, the baseball part of it. My mind is on getting better every day and it's the little things."

Guerrero will be long gone by July 21, but that's the day the Bisons are going to celebrate him with Vladdy Jr. Bobblehead Day as part of their annual Blue Jays Weekend.

"It makes me feel very happy," he said. "Every time I come here I have the same purpose: About working to be in the big leagues. But I'm very happy and honored that they're doing something like that for me."

The Bisons, who will be managed by Bobby Meacham for the third straight year, open their season April 4 against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at newly-named Sahlen Field. They have not made the playoffs since 2005, the longest drought in the International League, and have had four straight losing seasons. They were 61-77 last season, closing it with a franchise-record 11-game losing streak.

But the Blue Jays have been putting an added premium on winning in the minors. Guerrero and Bichette were among the players who shared the Florida State League title in 2017 at Class A Dunedin when the championship series was canceled by Hurricane Irma, and they won another playoff title last year at Double-A New Hampshire.

Guerrero obviously won't be in Buffalo very long in 2019 but the Blue Jays' prospect pool is growing and several of the players who were in New Hampshire will be graduating to Buffalo.

"We're all getting a lot closer to our dream," Bichette said. "Anywhere we're at — Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, big leagues — we want to win. It makes baseball a lot more fun, a lot more enjoyable to come to the field. We'll try to do the same thing again this year."

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