Normally these types of articles are reserved for minor leaguers that are considered “top prospects,” but that’s never really been the case for Junior Guerra of the Milwaukee Brewers. However the journeyman opened up plenty the eyes within the organization with an excellent showing in the minor leagues for the White Sox last season and is certainly an intriguing pitcher. According to his Baseball Reference page, Guerra has thrown only about 720 innings during his professional career (for reference, soon-to-be 27 year old Jimmy Nelson has thrown 850+ professional innings) so he has the mileage typical of a much younger pitcher on his right arm. If Fangraphs editor Carson Cistulli still considers the 31 year old rookie a “prospect” like I do, then that’s good enough for me to justify writing this post on my favorite Brewer farmhand.
Coming into the 2016 season, many folks thought that the starting rotation could be somewhat of a positive for the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately that’s been nowhere near the case. Adam McCalvy of Brewers.com noted that April of 2016 was the worst opening month of pitching in club history with collective totals of a 5.64 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, and .920 OPS against. With Matt Garza still on the shelf while dealing with shoulder issues and former first round pick Taylor Jungmann having been demoted to AAA Colorado Springs after posting a 9.15 ERA and 13:13 K/BB rate in five April starts, Slingin’ David Stearns elected to promote Junior Guerra over struggling #3 prospect Jorge Lopez.
Junior Guerra’s career can certainly be considered an odyssey. Originally signed as a 16 year old catcher out of Venezuela by Atlanta in 2001, Guerra converted to pitcher in 2006 after posting a .600 OPS in 197 games. He was released by the Braves in 2007 and eventually caught on with the Mets, throwing 18 games in the lower minors in 2008 before getting slapped with a 50 game PED suspension and ultimately getting released. Junior spent 2009-2014 pitching in unaffiliated leagues all over the world, spending time in the American Association with Wichita, the Venezuelan and Mexican winter leagues, and even pitching in Italy at the time he was signed to a minor league deal with the White Sox before the 2015 season.
After returning to MLB-affiliated ball at age 30, Guerra’s performance between AA and AAA last season was nothing short of astounding. He posted a cumulative 3.13 ERA and 3.06 FIP in 83.1 innings, striking out 105 batters against 33 walks. He earned a brief call-up to Chicago and threw four innings in relief while allowing three earned runs. He was claimed off waivers by Milwaukee on October 7th last year and was Slingin’ Stearns’ first transaction as Brewers’ General Manager. Guerra posted a 4.63 ERA and 4.06 FIP in four starts with the Sky Sox during the season’s early going.
Guerra has a sturdy build at 6’0″ and 205 lbs and typically throws out of the stretch and from an over-the-top arm slot. He possesses a three-pitch arsenal of fastball, slider, and split-finger changeup. His four-seam fastball generally runs in the 91-95 MPH range but he has hit as high as 99 MPH this year in AAA. His mid-80s slider features plenty of late 12-6 breaking action. His swing-and-miss splitter is his best pitch and the one he turns to most often for strikeouts, featuring 86-88 MPH velocity and significant break downwards and to his arm-side.
Guerra typically generates an above-average rate of ground balls, including a 48 percent rate in the minor leagues last season. He’s a strikeout pitcher who got whiffs against 31 percent of the batters he faced in 2015 and he had racked up 23 strikeouts in 23.1 innings this year in Colorado Springs. He’s also battled his command in the past. While he could certainly improve upon his 3.47 BB/9 mark from AAA this season, it shouldn’t be something that kills him.
Immediate Big League Future
As we’ve discussed a bit already the starting rotation has been something of a train wreck for the Brewers in 2016. Their starting staff has thrown an NL-low of 126.2 innings through 25 games and the club is in desperate need of another steadying presence in the rotation beyond Jimmy Nelson. Guerra should at least get a few turns through the rotation to prove that he can be that guy and if he can string together some solid outings, he could very well earn a spot in the big leagues for the rest of the season.
Given his advanced age and limited track record, however, it’s difficult to envision the 31 year old rookie as any sort of long-term piece for the club. This will almost assuredly be the best opportunity he will get during his career to stick at the major league level. If he can figure out how to consistently utilize his three-pitch arsenal with some success at the big league level, Guerra could be someone that can at least provide some steady innings at league minimum for the next three seasons while Milwaukee’s younger pitching prospects continue to develop down on the farm. Or he could perhaps become trade fodder if he pitches well and an interested club comes calling.
Guerra came out of nowhere last season to find himself on the fringes of the major leagues but he’s shown a legitimate three-pitch arsenal and should be able to contribute plenty of strikeouts. Beyond that, his potential contributions are an unknown. If you need a starter on a given day he may be worth consideration but there’s no way to tell at this point if he’ll be a long-term rotation presence or if he’s just a guy who gets the chance to make some starts for a rebuilding ball club. For what it’s worth, my bet is on the former.