Three weeks into spring training, Vladimir Guerrero showed up in
Montreal manager Felipe Alou's office with his luggage.
Apparently a hotel employee had been questioning him about his
bill, and Guerrero, whose English isn't quite good enough to be
called halting, assumed he was being reassigned to the Expos'
minor league digs. Not so, Alou told him. "We didn't bring him
to major league spring training last year because we were afraid
he might be our best player in camp," says Alou, who wanted
Guerrero to have another year of minor league seasoning. "This
spring he has been."
After that day's workout the 21-year-old rightfielder lugged his
suitcases back to the hotel, then returned to camp the next day
to hit an inside-the-park home run and throw out a runner at the
plate. Guerrero comes with baggage, and it's all tagged can't
miss. "The most exciting player I've seen in years," Marlins VP
of player personnel Gary Hughes says.
"I was with Raul Mondesi his rookie year [in Los Angeles]," says
Expos leftfielder Henry Rodriguez, "and Guerrero is better.
Guerrero has pitchers nervous every time he comes to bat."
"We threw him breaking balls the first few times, and he dived
across the plate and hit them all over the park," Orioles
pitching coach Ray Miller says of a Grapefruit League game. "I
figured that's why everybody likes him, because the kid can hit
a breaking ball. So I told our pitchers to come in on him. We
nicked him with a fastball his next at bat. Then we throw him
another inside fastball, and he turns on it and drills the ball
down the line for a double. We're running out of ideas."
When talking about Guerrero this spring, the matter-of-fact Alou
swore that he wouldn't compare a player with only 27 major
league at bats--and no Triple A experience--to legends. But as
the conversation went along Alou noted that Guerrero made a
flat-footed throw only Roberto Clemente could make and that he
crowds the plate like a young Frank Robinson.
Guerrero seems to accept the praise with humility--"Notice, not
one piece of jewelry," Rodriguez points out. That probably comes
from Guerrero's simple background. He grew up one of nine
children in Nizao Bani on the south coast of the Dominican
Republic, a town not noted for producing baseball players,
although his brother, Wilton, is a second baseman with the
Dodgers. Montreal, the most frugal of franchises, signed
Guerrero for a bargain-basement $3,500 in 1993, and his rise
through the system has been a blur. After only 1,055 minor
league at bats the Expos summoned him last September.
Guerrero's first major league starts came in a pennant-race
series in Atlanta against pitchers Steve Avery, Tom Glavine,
John Smoltz and Denny Neagle. Guerrero did O.K., going 4 for 17,
hitting an opposite-field home run against closer Mark Wohlers
and striking out on three straight Smoltz pitches--a changeup, a
slider away and an inside fastball. Guerrero cracks a
snaggletoothed smile at the memory of that pitching pattern,
which was new to him.
In 1997 Guerrero is bound to crack a few more smiles, but many
should be at the expense of the pitchers this time.
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER VLADIMIR GUERRERO This Year's Can't-Miss Kid
SS Mark Grudzielanek
Second in team history to get 200 hits in a season
2B Mike Lansing
Hit .237 last two months after .308 first half
CF Rondell White
Future 30-30 man hit .367 on 0-2 counts
LF Henry Rodriguez
Set team record with 36 HRs but led league with 160 K's
RF Vladimir Guerrero
Only 55 strikeouts in 524 at bats in A, AA and majors in '96
1B David Segui
Hit .414 with 2 HRs and 8 RBIs in final eight games versus Braves
3B Shane Andrews
119 K's in 375 at bats deadly for club that manufactures runs
C Chris Widger
Some scouts project he will hit .270, others .230
Ace Pedro Martinez
Runners stole 29 bases in 32 attempts against him last year
Closer Dave Veres
Went 2-1 with 2.30 ERA in second half
Shortstop Mark Grudzielanek was one of nine leadoff hitters in
the majors to bat .300 or better last season (minimum 50 games
hitting first in the order). However, Grudzielanek drew only one
walk every 33.1 trips to the plate--the lowest rate for any
leadoff hitter. The major league averages for players batting in
the top spot in the order last season were a .278 batting mark
and a base on balls every 10.8 plate appearances.
STAT FACTS BY ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU