In various preseason polls predicting the big baseball awards for 2019, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays was the odds-on favorite for AL Rookie of the Year while Brandon Lowe of the Tampa Bay Rays was nowhere to be found.
Guerrero was the hot name, of course, because of the instant recognition of being the son of a very popular Hall of Famer and having been the game’s top prospect for a few seasons. The hype was legitimate because he led the minors in hitting (.381), slugging (.636), and OPS (1.120), with four teams in 2018 as he rocketed up the ladder to Triple-A at age 19.
Lowe, meanwhile, entered the season having already made his MLB debut, but ranked as the No. 93 prospect in all of baseball, and with a franchise that usually toils in anonymity, even in its home market.
It now appears that the AL ROY is Lowe’s to lose, if he can hold off Eloy Jiménez of the Chicago White Sox and Guerrero, who didn’t make his MLB debut until April 26 and is sitting on only 11 home runs, although he did put on a sensational show in the Home Run Derby and seems to be heating up.
Lowe, a 25-year-old slugging second baseman, has an impressive .276/.339/.523 slash line and a team-leading 16 home runs, which puts him second among AL rookies, with 49 RBIs. He’s also struck out 104 times.
Lowe was named to the AL All-Star team but was unable to play after landing on the 10-day injured list with a bruised right shin after he fouled a ball off his leg.
Helping his cause is that, going into Thursday’s games, the Rays had jumped into the second wild-card spot. They’re 7 ½ games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East.
The Rays let everyone know what they thought of Lowe during spring training when they locked him up with a six-year, $24 million contract extension that includes two club options. With the options and incentives, the contract can top out at $49 million.
The contract buys out Lowe’s six years of team control with the two club options covering potential free agent years.
“We believe Brandon has the potential to make a longstanding impact at the major league level,” Rays GM Erik Neander said that day. “He’s shown both an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, and he’s quickly becoming a versatile defender who can help us in many ways. Brandon’s development, both offensively and defensively, is a testament to his commitment to his craft, and a credit to all of our staff who have scouted, coached and worked with him. With this agreement, we’re excited to cement his place in our young core for years to come.”
Lowe was a third-round draft pick in 2015 out of Maryland and made his MLB debut last August. He appeared in 43 games in 2018 with a slash line of .233/.324/.450 in 148 plate appearances, with six homers and 25 RBIs.
Lowe had been projected as a super-utility player, but has been used mostly at second base, where he’s played above-average defense, according to most metrics.
While Lowe has raked from the start of the season, Guerrero strained an oblique during spring training. The Blue Jays were expected to keep him in the minors long enough to gain another year of control anyway. He made a memorable debut on April 26, when he arrived at the ballpark in a replica Montreal Expos jersey to honor his dad. Several hours later, he doubled leading off the ninth inning for his first hit, which was followed by Brandon Drury’s walk-off two-run homer, with two outs in a 4-2 win over the Oakland Athletics.
“Just the way I dreamed it,” Guerrero said.
“He’s a great player,” Drury said. “You can see by his at-bats the game kind of comes easy to him. We’re all super excited to have Vladdy in this lineup.”
But Guerrero had a slow start and it raised a lot of eyebrows around baseball when he had only eight home runs when he was invited to participate in the Home Run Derby. Then he opened those eyes with a jaw-dropping performance in which he simply ran out of gas in the final round and lost to Pete Alonso of the New York Mets, who is the favorite for the NL ROY. Guerrero finished with a record 91 homers, including 29 in the first round — a record for any round — and then 40 in an epic semifinal matchup with Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers that went to the equivalent of three overtimes.
When it comes to home runs that count in the regular season, Guerrero might finally be heating up. He hit two grand slams during a span of 10 games in late July. He hit the latest one Tuesday night against Kansas City, giving him a career-high five RBIs. The 20-year-old Guerrero became the fourth-youngest American League player ever to drive in five runs in a game.
“He’s getting hot now and I knew that was going to happen,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s seeing the ball better. He’s having good at-bats. He wasn’t doing that and still getting hits because he’s just that good, but now he’s having good at-bats.”
On July 20 at Detroit, Guerrero made his first grand slam a memorable one, driving it 441 feet off Gregory Soto to help the Blue Jays beat the equally hapless Detroit Tigers.
“That’s a strong young man,” Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I think Soto was trying to get that on the outer corner but he left it over the middle and you saw where that young fellow hit it. I think they’ve got a good one there, but I don’t think they need me to tell them.”
Although Guerrero’s season has been uneven, Montoyo said, “He’s 20 years old, and he’s going to have his ups and downs, but he’s always going to find a way to smile. That’s just who he is.”
Guerrero said he would give the ball to his Hall of Fame father.
Guerrero, currently slashing .261/.337/.431 with 43 RBIs, joined the Blue Jays at age 16 for a $3.9 million signing bonus.
Others in the conversation are Eloy Jiménez, an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, left-hander John Means of the Baltimore Orioles, and infielder Michael Chavis of the Boston Red Sox.
Jiménez missed some time due to a sprained ankle. He’s slashing .232/.294/.461 and is tied with Chavis for the AL rookie homer lead with 17. Chavis is slashing .263/.333/.463 with 56 RBIs. He’s struck out a whopping 115 times, tied with Alonso for the most among MLB rookies.
The White Sox are so sure of Jiménez’s future that they gave him a six-year, $43 million contract during spring training. It was almost double the amount of the previous high for a player under club control yet to make his major league debut.
Means (8-6, 3.12 ERA in 98 innings, with 78 strikeouts to 27 walks) was the first Orioles rookie since 1966 to be named to the All-Star team.