It's only one month into a season that had the earliest start ever and already we have what promises to be one of the most exciting weekends of the year.
No, it's not because the NFL Draft is finally here after too many mock attempts. We really are talking baseball and a lot intrigue if you can spare the time. The game's hottest young prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is (after much debate and a little controversy) making his major league debut, which excites fans of the Toronto Blue Jays.
At the same time, the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (aka MLB's Experimental Development League) will institute some, but not all, of the rule changes that seem to come out of the commissioner's office on a regular basis. How many, if any, of these proposals will excite baseball fans in general remains to be seen, but they are sure to create some curiosity (which might be the real idea).
At the moment Guerrero is creating as much interest as any player in the game, with all due apologies to Mike Trout. At the age of 20, he is being touted as the second coming of ... well, how about the second coming of Vladimir Guerrero Sr.? (From what WAR is telling us, there will be no second coming of Trout.)
Believe it or not, however, there are actually numbers (but no analytics) that indicate Junior could even surpass the Senior Guerrero.
Check out the evidence: In 308 minor league games (including 18 on rehab assignments late in his career) Daddy Guerrero fashioned a .340/.403/.588 slash line (.992 OPS) with 50 home runs and 200 runs batted in; Junior Guerrero's line after 288 games is .331/.413/.531 (.945 OPS), 44 home runs and 209 RBIs. In other words, if all stays on schedule Cooperstown will be calling about 2039-2040.
In some quarters the only question about young Guerrero's arrival is why it took so long, which those in the executive branches of MLB understand, but many Toronto fans questioned. For purposes of service time, 172 days is considered a full year (as opposed to this year's 185 on the calendar), and therein lies the debate and maybe even a little controversy.
The question was at least compromised when Junior suffered a strained left oblique in spring training. There's never a good time for an injury, but in this case it was at least a convenient one for the Blue Jays. Guerrero had been a non-roster invitee to spring training and the team made no pretense about the possibility of adding him to the Opening Day roster, insisting all along that there were final touches to be applied at Triple-A Buffalo -- not to mention a year of service time to be protected.
So, technically Guerrero played four rehab games with Single-A Dunedin before playing eight with Triple-A Buffalo, a level at which he excelled for the last half of 2018. Now, with the finishing touches in place, and his service time safely under one full year, Guerrero got his promotion April 26, when he officially began the pursuit of his Hall Of Fame father's numbers. In effect that means it will take him almost seven years, rather than six, to reach free agency -- a not insignificant factor in an age of analytics that goes beyond simple playing statistics.
Meanwhile, on a much broader scale, the Atlantic League opens its season the weekend of April 25-28 as the unofficial (but very real) guinea pig for a handful of rule change proposals -- though the start of the most significant one has been at least temporarily delayed. Having the TrackMan radar "help" umpires with ball and strike calls, which was supposed to be implemented at the start of the season will "gradually be worked into play" -- at some as yet unannounced time -- perhaps to get the umpires used to a voice in their ear.
Here are the changes that will go into effect immediately in the Atlantic League:
- Size of the bases will be increased to 15x18 inches.
- There will be a modified ban on defensive shifts, with two infielders required on either side of second base.
- No visits to the mound will be permitted unless a pitcher is either removed from the game or injured.
- There will be a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the lone exception being the end of an inning.
The most radical of the proposals presented -- moving the pitcher's rubber back two feet, initially slated for the second half this year -- has been shelved until at least next year, and most likely for good. When the injury factory was raised initially, the most immediate response -- "that's why we're trying it in the Atlantic League" -- wasn't deemed the most humane response, thus raising the red flag even higher.
Since the Atlantic League spans an area from Long Island, N.Y. to Sugarland, Texas, chances are these changes could be coming to a ballpark near you -- York, Pa., and Waldorf, Md., for those in the mid-Atlantic area.
For the baseball purists, the Toronto Blue Jays and superstar in training Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be at Camden Yards June 11-13, Aug. 1-4 and Sept. 17-19.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.