Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers ’17 — #41 Junior Guerra

After a long and warm weekend in Milwaukee, thoughts have absolutely turned to Spring in the Cream City.

We’re officially inside of six weeks until Opening Day on April 3rd at Miller Park. (We’re also just four days outs from the Cactus League opener against the Angels at the ironically named Tempe Diablo Stadium, but this is a countdown to the opener of the regular season, so…)

Everybody, including the visa-issue-having Neftali Feliz (BBtJN profile coming this weekend), has reported to camp and the competition for 25-man roster jobs is already underway.

One man who should feel as least as secure in his spot as anyone is today’s profile subject…

Junior Guerra.

Oh, the tale of Junior Guerra.

First acknowledged as a future trivia question answer (“Who is the first player David Stearns acquired as general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers?”), the now 32-year-old has an all too common journey if you only consider the outset.

Guerra was first signed into professional baseball as an amateur free agent from Venezuela by the Atlanta Braves organization. There he would spend five years. He was released. That reads like a typical story with a typical ending of “and he eventually stopped playing because no one wanted to pay him to do so any more,” but Guerra’s 16-year story in post-signing baseball is far from typical.

The Braves signed a 16-year-old who both caught and played outfield. Unfortunately for that young ballplayer, hitting is kind of a requirement when you play those positions. In parts of four seasons of stateside ball in the Braves’ org, all in Rookie-level affiliates, Guerra slashed a paltry .213/.245/.355 in 327 plate appearances. It’s not too much of a stretch to see why Guerra’s next step became a reality.

Entering 2006, Guerra spent part of his time throwing the pitches instead of catching them. He still caught in 13 games that year, for what it’s worth, but the strong throwing arm combined with the lack of hitting no doubt led to the decision. Guerra was obviously a work in progress and put together a 6.59 ERA in a mere 28.2 innings across 18 games that year.

Apparently not wanting to commit to said project, the Braves released Guerra after Spring Training in 2007. Most likely due to his project status and how closely he was released to minor league Opening Days around the league, he ended up spending 2007 out of organized baseball. That’s where most similar stories will end. Player worked hard, got signed, didn’t make the grade, released, “force retirement.” But as mentioned earlier, there’s much about the second act of Guerra’s saga that is atypical.

The New York Mets took a chance on Guerra’s new profile, signing him following the end of the 2007 season. Guerra actually pitched pretty well while making stops at four different Mets affiliates, but a 50-game suspension spelled the end of his time in that organization. You might be reading this and thinking “Okay, so that’s where his story ends.”

Not even close.

Guerra pitched in a Hawaiian winter league in 2008, the Venezuelan Winter League in 2009 and 2010 before catching on with the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association for 2011. He returned to winter ball in his native Venezuela that year (and every year since up until 2016 when he was coming off an injury).

In the summer of 2012, Guerra could be found pitching for the Leones de Yucatan in the Mexican League for just under a month. He would pitch again for the Wingnuts in 2013 and even spent time in Italy and Spain just working on his craft.

The key element of that craft turned out to need all that time. Guerra’s current weapon of choice is one that has fallen out of favor around the big leagues: the split-finger fastball. And not seeing it as often has made hitters that much more susceptible to it.

Guerra first learned the pitch from former big league relief pitcher Jean Machi. Last season while meeting with the media at Miller Park, Guerra stated that the pitch took him several years to master.

“It was around 2009 that I started throwing a splitter and playing with it,” but that “it wasn’t until 2011 that I started feeling comfortable with it, and I thank God I’ve had the chance to locate with it and use it. It helps a lot with my fastball and slider.”

All of that time spent bouncing around baseball — around the world, really — has allowed Guerra to command a pitch that’s tough on the arm of the pitcher but even tougher for a hitter to drive.

It wasn’t the Brewers who gave Guerra his chance to get back into affiliated ball, though. The Chicago White Sox signed the then 29-year-old pitcher in late October 2014. He was promoted to the big leagues and on June 12, 2015 made his Major League debut. He pitched three games out of the bullpen (he had been starting and relieving in the White Sox system that year) mostly in a mop-up role. He finished one close game in his debut but then finished up a pair of 11-run losses before being optioned down to the minors.

Guerra was waived by the White Sox following the season in a move to clear up a 40-man roster spot. It probably seemed pretty safe to waive a guy with Guerra’s track record at his age, but Stearns, who had just officially assumed GM duties in Milwaukee on October 1, 2015, saw something he liked in that splitter-focused approach and put in a waiver claim. The Brewers were awarded the waiver claim on October 7.

From there, Guerra was somewhat of an afterthought (to almost everyone) as preparations began for the 2016 campaign. He would probably pitch at Triple-A Colorado Springs, maybe even in relief, it was assumed. Instead, Stearns installed Guerra into the rotation.

Guerra would make just five starts for the Sky Sox before his services would be required as an experiment in the big leagues. Taylor Jungmann was struggling badly after a month of the regular season and needed to be sent down. Guerra took the ball, literally and proverbially, and never looked back.

20 starts, 121.2 innings pitched, 100 strikeouts, 43 walks, 10 home runs. A 2.81 ERA, 1.126 WHIP, 2.3 K/BB.

At long last, Guerra had arrived in Major League Baseball.

An arm injury (right elbow inflammation) derailed things for about a month, but he finished the season healthy before reaching an innings limit and not playing following a start on September 14 in which he stymied the Reds over 6.0 innings of shutout ball.

The Brewers’ best starting pitcher in 2016 wasn’t expected to be Junior Guerra; he didn’t even begin the season in the rotation. But Guerra did what he had to do in order to earn the opportunities he received and then made the most of those opportunities.

Sounds like that just might be typical for Junior Guerra after all.

Follow Junior on Twitter: @juni1685

Looking to catch up on this season’s BBtJN? Just click on a name below:

#59 Carlos Torres
#57 Chase Anderson
#56 Ryan Webb
#54 Michael Blazek
#53 Jhan Mariñez
#52 Jimmy Nelson
#51 Damien Magnifico
#50 Jacob Barnes
#47 Jett Bandy
#46 Corey Knebel
#45 Tyler Cravy

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