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Guerrero's still got it after all

5/26/2010

What a joy it has been to watch a rejuvenated Vladimir Guerrero hit the way he used to with the Montreal Expos. The current version manning the designated hitter role for the Texas Rangers is hitting like the old version, the one most of us never expected to see again. Guerrero, now 35 and clearly not on his last legs, homered twice and knocked in five runs in Kansas City on Tuesday. He's hitting .347 and on pace for 43 home runs and 150 RBIs!

Guerrero, who was taken in Round 15 of ESPN average live drafts this season, really does look like his old self, swinging at everything, driving the ball with authority, hitting for average despite caring little about plate discipline, even stealing the occasional base. Last legs? Not quite yet.

Despite these seemingly overachieving numbers that have Guerrero in the AL MVP race -- he is, after all, top five on the ESPN Player Rater, I can't call him a sell-high fantasy guy. We've seen this before, and this guy is just different. With most players his age who appeared in decline, fantasy owners would be waiting for the inevitable fade, and avoid trading for him. A year ago through 46 games Guerrero, who was recovering from a torn pectoral muscle, had four home runs and 21 RBIs. He's doubling that -- and more -- this season.

Back in the ESPN Fantasy projections, it was noted that Guerrero was "always killing the ball in Arlington when he was with the Angels, but that was a different Guerrero, one who was not fading with bad knees and a slight loss of bat speed, which could get magnified given his free-swinging ways." I can't take credit for writing that, but I was certainly thinking it. Guerrero was able to play in only 100 games as he closed his Angels career last season. He didn't qualify in the outfield and hit only 15 home runs and had a .794 OPS. That's not awful, but it's not typical Vlad, either.

I suppose we misread the degree to which his lack of plate discipline would translate in his later, gimpier years and didn't factor in his new home ballpark enough. His old approach is working just fine, and it appears he's healthy. Last season, a battered Guerrero wasn't able to reach pitches on the outside part of the plate, over his head or that bounced up there. Hey, the guy swings at anything; the pitch he hit for a double Tuesday looked like it would have smacked his left knee had he not made contact and ripped it down the left-field line. One of his home runs last week looked like it came on a pitch that had a chance to bounce on the plate. His at-bats are once again must-see viewing.

Entering Tuesday, Guerrero ranked sixth in the league in batting average on pitches out of the strike zone, with a minimum of 250 pitches seen. He was hitting .283, and that figure rose Tuesday. He's aggressively hacking at everything, pitchers likewise assumed he was near the end, and he's burning them with a power pace that would rival anything Guerrero has done in a decade.

Alas, I'll take the under on Guerrero hitting more than 35 home runs, but I won't predict doom, either. Here are a few things to watch as Guerrero's season goes on:

Home versus road: It was a very good sign that Guerrero hit the Tuesday home runs on the road, but the fact is nine of his first 10 long balls had come at cozy Rangers Ballpark. Guerrero entered Tuesday hitting .385 at home with a 1.100 OPS, and .258 with a .621 OPS on the road. That's not a good sign, because even though Guerrero still has four-plus months of home games to go, the Rangers have played an AL-low 19 road games, with 27 games at home. Guerrero has to do better on the road to continue these numbers.

Hitting right-handers: Guerrero brought a .294 AVG/.336 OBP/.513 SLG line against right-handers into Tuesday's game against the right-handed Gil Meche. Plenty of top right-handed hitters do their best work against lefties, but Guerrero is hitting .442 against southpaws, the fourth-highest mark in baseball after Francisco Cervelli, Cristian Guzman and Andrew McCutchen. Opposing managers will likely lessen the frequency with which Guerrero faces left-handed pitching, even if that means the hitter who protects him in the order, the left-handed Josh Hamilton, faces more right-handed pitching. Guerrero posted a very good line against right-handers a year ago, but his problem was against lefties.

Staying healthy: I don't expect injuries with Guerrero, to be honest. I expect it will take him longer, however, to recover from them if they occur. Maybe being a primary DH really has changed his fortunes. The thing I like is that Guerrero is generally better after the All-Star break. The past two seasons, there was no second-half fade. He doesn't appear to get tired, though playing (almost) half the time in the hot Texas sun will be a challenge.

The last time Guerrero ended up a top-10 fantasy hitter was 2007. I'll say he falls short of that this season, but certainly he's a candidate to remain in the top 50, someone who can hit .330 with 30 home runs and 110 RBIs. Last week as a staff we ranked Guerrero at No. 70. I'm wondering if that wasn't good enough.