Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero is the consensus top prospect in all of baseball. Last season, Guerrero cut a mighty swath through the upper rungs of the minors, but the Blue Jays refused to promote him to Toronto. So will Guerrero at last head north with the team once spring training ends? Jays GM Ross Atkins strongly suggests that won't be the case.
Atkins is of course correct that Guerrero is a mere 19-year-old, but that hasn't stopped him from dominating his peer groups -- his much older peer groups -- at every stop. Guerrero will enter the 2019 season with a career OPS of .943 across parts of three minor-league seasons. In 2018, he batted .402/.449/.671 in 61 games at the Double-A level. After a promotion to Triple-A, Guerrero slashed .336/.414/.564 with more walks than strikeouts and 13 extra-base hits in 30 games. Maybe you can argue his defense needs further development, but Atkins seems to dismiss that idea. Even if that were the case, there's much to be said for learning on the job. The bat, though, will always be Guerrero's calling card, and there's no disputing he's ready.
What's very likely going on is that the Jays are laying the groundwork for manipulating Guerrero's service time. A player who spends at least 172 days on an MLB team's active list is credited with a full year of service time. From that, things like arbitration eligibility and free agency -- when a player comes much closer to being paid market rates for his services -- flow. In other words, service time and the accumulation thereof is what unlocks a player's earning potential.
The assumption is that teams will handle promotions on merit. When a player has proved he's ready for baseball at the highest level, as Guerrero has indisputably done, he'll be called up. This of course is not the case in practice. By pushing Guerrero's promotion back so that he can't rack up those 172 days in 2019, the Jays will be able to delay his free agency. This is not a new practice, as Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and others would surely attest. Given that it's been going on for a while, it's puzzling that the Players Association didn't attempt to address it during the last round of collective bargaining.
That they didn't means that teams are free to continue the distasteful practice, and suits like Atkins are compelled to claim with some semblance of a straight face that elite performers like Guerrero need more time in the minors. Don't be surprised if Guerrero magically becomes worthy of a call-up not long after he's no longer able to rack up those 172 days in 2019.