Prospect Retrospective: Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero announced his final retirement from professional baseball this week. I've had several requests for a revised Prospect Retrospective, so here is one final look at the career of the Impaler.
Vladimir Guerrero was signed by the Montreal Expos as a free agent from Bani in the Dominican Republic in 1993. He made his debut that summer in the Dominican Summer League, hitting .333/.385/.400 in 34 games for the Expos' entry at age 17. Assigning letter grades to guys in the DSL isn't very meaningful, but he'd already made a name for himself as an intriguing tools prospect.
He moved up to the Gulf Coast League in 1994, hitting .314/.369/.562 in 37 games for the GCL Expos at age 18. Eddie Epstein wrote the first edition of the Minor League Scouting Notebook in '95, and he didn't write about short-season players. But Guerrero's performance didn't go unnoticed. He was named the Number Four prospect in the GCL by Baseball America, behind a second baseman named Sergio Nunez, a pitcher named Scott Elarton, and an outfielder named Andruw Jones. Guerrero's tools stood out, he was developing power, and his plate discipline was adequate. I would give a similar player today a B+ in most cases.
Promoted to Albany in the Sally League in 1995, Vlad hit .333/.383/.544 with 16 homers, 10 triples, and 12 steals. His OPS was a full +37 percent better than league average. He and Andruw Jones roamed the outfields of the Sally League, generating controversy about who was the best prospect.
Although Guerrero drew just 30 walks, he struck out a mere 45 times in 421 at-bats. I gave him a Grade A- in the '96 book, ranking him as the Number 14 hitting prospect in the game, which seems low now.
Guerrero moved up to West Palm Beach in 1996, where he hit .363 in 20 games and earned a promotion to Double-A. He hit a mere .360/.438/.612 in the Eastern League, boosting his OPS to a superb +42 percent compared to league. He increased his walk rate while keeping his strikeout rate very low. I gave him a Grade A in the 1997 book, rating him as the Number Two prospect in baseball behind Andruw.
Skipping Triple-A, Vlad hit .302/.350/.483 (OPS+117, WAR 1.7) at age 21 for the Expos in 1997. He was even better in 1998 at .324/.371/.589 (OPS+150, WAR 7.0), beginning a long run as one of the top hitters in baseball. He was American League MVP in 2004 at age 29 on the strength of a .337/.391/.598, 157 OPS+, 6.3 WAR season.
Although he never won a batting title, he hit over .300 every season until 2009, when he hit "just" .295 for the Angels at age 34.
Vlad eventually lost his speed and his defense has deteriorated badly over time, to the point that his poor glovework dragged down his WAR values. Overall he finished as a career .318/.379/.553 hitter, OPS+140, wRC+ 136, career WAR 59.8. He was a nine-time All Star, and led the league in intentional walks five times, showing how much he was feared in his heyday.
Guerrero's Bill James Sim Score comps:
Jim Rice (Hall of Fame)
Willie Stargell (HoF)
Billy Williams (HoF)
Duke Snider (HoF)
Among players who spent most of their career in right field, Guerrero's 59.8 career WAR puts him in a class with Bobby Bonds (63.3), Andre Dawson (62.3, HoF), Harry Hooper (61.7, HoF), Brian Giles (59.2), Rocky Colavito (59.0), and Sam Rice (58.2, HoF).
Overall, the comps sound about right: Vlad wasn't a first-tier Hall of Famer, but he's certainly worthy of induction and hasn't been tarred with the PED brush like many stars of his generation, hopefully helping his case.
As a prospect, Guerrero was a tools hound who also showed outstanding hitting skills, producing both power and average. He didn't draw many walks, but he didn't strike out much either. That's exactly the player he became.