Vlad enjoying career resurgence, return to All-Star form with Texas
After Guerrero's disastrous 2009 season, only the Rangers expressed interest
Resurgence has Guerrero back in All-Star game -- and back in Angel Stadium
Vlad's contract hopes, Rangers' playoff hopes depend on strong second half
ANAHEIM -- Texas Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine figures it takes 18 minutes for either him or general manager Jon Daniels to walk from their executive offices at the Ballpark in Arlington down to the home clubhouse.
Which explains why, when asked at what point the Rangers will begin the negotiating process to extend impeding free agent Vladimir Guerrero, Levine was able to give a remarkably precise answer: "Within 18 minutes of the announcement of the new ownership group."
That confidence is a testament to the remarkable comeback the 35-year-old Guerrero has enjoyed in Texas, where he has bolstered the Rangers' lineup with a .319 average, 20 home runs and 75 RBIs -- numbers his former manager, the Angels' Mike Scioscia, admitted constitute an "MVP-caliber season."
Those stats have Guerrero, who signed a one-year free agent contract with the Rangers in January, back in the All-Star Game as the American League's starting designated hitter -- and back in the dugout he called home the past six seasons.
No one knows what Guerrero thinks of his renaissance season or of the delicious irony of returning to play in an All-Star Game hosted by the Angels, the club that essentially left his career for dead this offseason. Guerrero skipped Monday's media availability, perhaps electing to spend additional time in the home he still owns in Anaheim, perhaps wanting to skip the inevitable questions about his return to Angel Stadium.
By all accounts Guerrero had a disastrous 2009 season, spending time on the disabled list first with a torn pectoral muscle and later with a calf strain. Never fully healthy, he had the worst year of his career, batting below .300 (.295) for the first time and hitting just 15 home runs, his fewest since his rookie season in 1997.
As a result, the veteran slugger received little interest in free agency, except from the Rangers. Levine said Guerrero was the organization's "No. 1 target" as it sought a power-hitting, right-handed bat with a cheaper price tag than younger stars like Jason Bay or Matt Holliday.
To signal their interest, the Rangers sent Daniels, manager Ron Washington and strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez, who is bilingual, to visit Guerrero in southern California in the offseason. The parties discussed the possibility all day until Guerrero and his agent both got on the phone with the player's mother -- whom Levine called "the ultimate decision maker" -- and received her blessing.
"We felt that the performance he had in 2009 was an aberration and not an indication of significant decline," Levine said. "We were very comfortable with the medical information provided."
As a safeguard, the Rangers added almost $1 million in playing time bonuses on top of Guerrero's $6.5 million salary, but they were confident in the player they were signing. It helped, of course, that Guerrero was a regular Rangers killer. Even during his down '09 season, he batted .404 with two homers in 15 games against Texas.
"I'm just glad he's on our side," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said, "and the Angels can feel what I've been feeling."
Guerrero's presence in the lineup has helped spark a resurgence from Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton, who is batting .346 with 22 home runs and 64 RBIs and readily admits how much he's benefited from batting behind his new teammate. Hitters in front of Guerrero see better pitches because pitchers don't want to issue walks before the RBI machine comes to bat; hitters behind Guerrero sometimes benefit from a letdown, after the fear factor of facing the future Hall of Famer is over.
While the mystique surrounding Guerrero is very real, Levine said the perception that Guerrero is a bad-ball hitting, swing-from-the-heels hacker is only a half-truth. But thanks to Guerrero singling last September on a pitch that bounced and hitting countless home runs on pitches at his ankles, there are some remarkable scouting reports on Guerrero floating around out there.
"I've heard everything," Tigers ace Justin Verlander said, "from 'Don't throw strikes because he'll chase [pitches outside the zone]' to 'Throw it right down the middle because that's the one he can't hit.' I'm serious."
Asked if he ever tried the down-the-middle strategy, Verlander laughed, masking the underlying fear of Guerrero rocketing the ball back up the middle. "No," he said. "I don't want to."
One brave soul did employ such a strategy, according to his catcher. John Buck said that when he was with the Royals, Zack Greinke actually purposefully threw more seemingly hittable pitches to test a theory.
"Greinke said, 'Man, it seems like he's hit a whole bunch of good pitches' and -- this being Zack -- he said, 'Let's see what he can do with just a B.P. fastball right down the middle,'" Buck recalled. "One game that's all he threw him, and he hit three foul home runs but we got him out. When we tried to throw him a slider down [in a previous game], he hit it off the ground for a homer."
Levine attests Guerrero is much more of a situational hitter than he's credited for, however.
"There's this projection that he's this free-swinging, kind of flailing guy," Levine said. "When there's nobody on, he can be that guy, but when there are runners on and RBIs to be had, it's amazing how different a hitter he is and how much more patient he is."
Indeed, Guerrero's career on-base percentage is 45 points higher with runners on base. In Game 3 of last year's American League Division Series against the Red Sox, he showed that skill. The Angels trailed 5-2 in the eighth inning when Guerrero stepped to the plate with a runner on second and one out. Even after falling behind 0-2, he worked an eight-pitch walk and later scored the second of two big Angels runs in the inning.
The Rangers knew exactly what kind of hitter they were getting. The more unexpected benefit of signing Guerrero, Levine said, is that he has "really galvanized our Latin American group of players." The Rangers have a great Latino corps, with two All-Stars (shortstop Elvis Andrus and closer Neftali Feliz) and three other key contributors (center fielder Julio Borbon, right fielder Nelson Cruz and set-up man Frank Francisco) that Guerrero, who hails from the Dominican Republic, has rallied.
"When Vlad came on, he united all of us," Feliz said through a Spanish-speaking interpreter. "We're always talking about the game, even when the game is not going on, so he's been a huge influence on the young players."
That influence is partly responsible for the Rangers being in first place in the AL West, where they have a 4 1/2-game lead on the Angels. Guerrero has shown signs of slowing down, batting just .175 in 10 games in July (though he popped two home runs in that span). It remains to be seen if that dip is a normal slump or the early indicator of something more, but the Rangers don't plan to play Guerrero any less often than any other player under the hot Texas sun.
Whether Guerrero can keep it up will go a long way toward determining whether this one-year reprieve leads to a lucrative multi-year contract -- and whether the Rangers can secure their first playoff berth in 11 years.