Blue Jays looking for answers to unlock full potential of Vlad Guerrero Jr.

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Will a productive winter in Florida help erase a disappointing summer in Toronto?

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Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins hopes spending the off-season not far from the team’s player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., will help unlock what slugging star Vlad Guerrero Jr. has been missing over parts of the previous two seasons.

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It’s clear the Jays need and want more from Guerrero, who remains one of the hardest contact hitters in the game, but has struggled to translate that power into consistently reliable production.

“I haven’t had the answer all year and I’ve said to you I believe that, based on the contact quality, that it would turn, not just for Vlad, but for several of our hitters,” Atkins said at his season-ending press conference.

“I believe it will turn again, but I can’t rest on my faith. I have to find solutions to better support him and to better support our players and make sure that’s not happening again.”

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Where those solutions come from remain to be seen, but it’s clear from Atkins’ repeated comments pertaining to hitting that changes to the coaching staff are a strong possibility, especially on the hitting side.

Tapping into Guerrero’s ability and rediscovering some of that production that led to a breakthrough 48 home run season in 2021 would rank high in priorities, though much of the improvement would have to come from Guerrero himself.

“What we have done in the past has worked,” Atkins said. “It didn’t not work this year. We didn’t get the job done. We weren’t able to find a solution. Two things in offence — having an approach and having a plan. In my opinion, they’re too very different things.”

As it applies to Guerrero specifically, sharpening that focus will be critical. The team needs him to be not just a bright young talent, but a superstar capable of driving the team offensively.

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Over time, Jays management has been beyond patient with Guerrero during his work-in-progress career.

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They’ve cushioned his rise to make sure he’s comfortable, an investment in an elite prospect who had the potential to carry a franchise.

They’ve put up with his fitness issues earlier in his career and even let him try to play at third base, an assignment that was never going to end well.

They stuck with him during a sub-standard season in 2022 and patiently waited for him to emerge as an offensive leader in the now-vanquished 2023 season.

And now the organization finds itself in a position where it’s difficult to view Guerrero as the bonafide cornerstone of the franchise based on the stalled trajectory.

Through six post-season games, the Jays are 0-6 and Guerrero three hits (1-for-7 this year), with no home runs and is batting .136. Worse, during that brutal 2-0 loss in Minnesota to end a two-game wild-card sweep, a lack of focus caused Guerrero to be picked off at second base, ending one of the more promising opportunities to score in the game.

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“He is a focused individual,” Atkins said in defence of Guerrero. “He’s a very good player. He’s made huge contributions for us and he’s going to continue to.”

Guerrero remains one of the most engaging players in the sport and is a huge fan favourite, one of the most popular athletes in Canada.

Unfortunately, beyond his 48-homer season two years ago, his biggest moments have come in exhibitions — a runner-up and win in the Home Run Derby and an All Star Game MVP award.

Now, it’s up to the 24-year-old to take the next step and for the Jays to facilitate that progress, a task the team hopes will be made easier by a productive winter in Florida.

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Atkins acknowledged that his team’s struggles to produce offensively has been a vexing source of frustration.

“I don’t have a theory,” the GM said. “I see their preparation and it is sound. Bo (Bichette) had a strong performance in the series. Vlad hit some balls hard right at guys. There’s so many things about those individuals that make us a better organization. Our focus at this point isn’t on the two of them. Our focus is on how we are best supporting the team and all of those individuals.”

So does that mean changes are coming in the coaching staff? Reading between Atkins’ lines suggests it’s a possibility.

“We have had success in the past scoring runs,” Atkins said. “I’m confident we will find a solution, not just because we have done it in the past. We need to adjust. The league has adjusted to us and we need to find a better way to support them.”

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