DUNEDIN, Fla. – No one wins here.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. misses the chance to play for his home country in the World Baseball Classic; the Blue Jays must navigate next steps for Guerrero Jr. now that right knee inflammation has interrupted his spring; and Major League Baseball loses the chance to showcase one of its brightest young stars at an event intended to grow the game globally.
Yet if there was any real question as to the health of Guerrero Jr.’s knee, the decision he made to pull himself out of the WBC was the right one. He’s simply too important to the team’s 2023 chances to risk aggravating what the Blue Jays are describing as minor inflammation with no structural concerns.
The trouble began Friday afternoon when Guerrero Jr. advanced to second base following an RBI single in the Blue Jays’ Grapefruit League game against the Rays. He initially stayed in the game and scored, but soon exited for defensive replacement Rainer Nunez. After the game, the Blue Jays took an MRI to assess the state of his knee.
While the Blue Jays played in Lakeland, Fla. Saturday, Guerrero Jr. was slated to take batting practice at the team’s Dunedin, Fla. facility. But Guerrero Jr. didn’t hit alongside his teammates at the player development complex, getting treatment instead without addressing the media.
“At this stage in camp we’re being ultra-cautious,” manager John Schneider told reporters in Lakeland. “He felt a little better today than he did yesterday, so we’re taking it one day at a time.”
With opening day still three and a half weeks away, there’s plenty of room for Guerrero Jr. to recover in time for the season. To this point, there’s been no indication that the Blue Jays believe the 23-year-old will have to miss significant time.
But even so, managing Guerrero Jr.’s recovery in Dunedin, Fla. is much different than handing him over to the Dominican Republic team and hoping for the best. After all, the WBC can be an intensely competitive environment – one in which players could push themselves to max effort. When players are fully healthy, that’s a risk teams accept. But once a health question emerges, the risk starts to exceed the reward. In this case, Guerrero Jr. made the decision for the Blue Jays by deciding to withdraw.
A related line of thinking also applied to Alejandro Kirk, who had been slated to play for Mexico in the WBC until the birth of his daughter delayed his arrival to spring training. At a certain point, the Blue Jays need to do what’s best for their team even if it means setting aside the growth of the sport as a whole.
Under those circumstances, the dream WBC lineups often pale in comparison to the reality of who’s available to play. At this point, Otto Lopez (Canada) and Jose Berrios (Puerto Rico) are the only Blue Jays participating in the tournament, with Berrios slated to leave following his appearance in Sunday’s game.
Best-case scenario for the Blue Jays would see Guerrero Jr. ease back into the lineup in plenty of time to prepare for the team’s March 30 season opener in St. Louis. By all accounts, that’s the expectation.
But with Guerrero Jr. temporarily sidelined, it’s worth taking stock of the team’s alternatives at first base. Next on the depth chart would be Brandon Belt, who has been working behind the scenes doing infield work, taking batting practice and running as he gets back into baseball shape following a knee injury of his own.
“I feel really good right now physically,” Belt said. “I’m just in the process of building my body up to get ready for games. And as far as the overall health of my body, it’s good right now.”
The 34-year-old may be a week or so from getting into games, but he expects two weeks of spring competition to be more than enough. Beyond Belt, there’s also Cavan Biggio, who’s expected to split time between first, second and right field in 2023.
Of course those contingency plans may not be needed any time soon. In his three full big-league seasons, Guerrero Jr. has missed a total of three games. Ideally, some caution now would set him up for another full workload when it counts the most.