Through the first month of the 2016 regular season, the Milwaukee Brewers had the worst pitching staff in baseball. Wily Peralta and Taylor Jungmann had melted down, Matt Garza was hurt, the bullpen was struggling, and Milwaukee’s collection of hurlers owned a 5.68 ERA at the end of April, 30th out of the 30 Major League teams. A major shot in the arm for the pitching staff was coming, however, in the form of 31 year old rookie Junior Guerra.
Junior Guerra’s baseball odyssey began in the Atlanta Braves organization in 2001 when he was signed as a 16 year old catcher. He didn’t convert to pitcher until 2006 and then was released by the Braves in early 2007. He caught on with the Mets late in that year, but after receiving a 50 game PED suspension in 2008 the Mets cut ties with Guerra and he once again found himself as a free agent. Unwilling to give up on his professional baseball dreams, Guerra found employment in unaffiliated leagues all over the world from 2009-2014: Spain, Italy, Mexico, Venezuela, and even Wichita, Kansas. He was pitching in Italy when he was signed to a minor league contract by the White Sox late in 2014 and he spent the entire 2015 season in their organization, including making his major league debut at age 30, some 14 years after signing his first professional contract. He tossed 4.0 innings out of the White Sox bullpen (allowing 3 earned runs) but was designated for assignment after the completion of the 2015 regular season.
Slingin’ David Stearns claimed Junior on waivers on October 7th, 2015, his first official transaction as the Brewers’ General Manager. Guerra began his season in the AAA Sky Sox starting rotation, but was summoned to make his Brewers debut on May 3rd against the Los Angeles Angels. He pitched a rather nondescript 6.0 innings, allowing 4 earned runs on 7 hits, 3 strikeouts, and a walk, though he did pick up his first major league win.
Guerra would quickly establish himself as a fixture in the Brewers’ rotation and pitched some of Milwaukee’s best games this season. Using his mid-90s fastball and devastating split finger, Junior struck out 11 Cubs in 7.0 innings during a win on May 19th; he tossed 8.0 shutout innings with 7 punchouts against the Dodgers on June 29th, followed by 7.1 scoreless innings against the Nationals on the 4th of July in Washington, DC, out-dueling Max Scherzer to a 1-0 victory; he was one out away from a complete game against the Pirates on July 29th, throwing 8.2 innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts; and in his final start of 2016, Guerra shut out the Reds over 6.0 innings to end his season on a high note.
Junior wound up making 20 starts and pitching 121.2 innings for our local nine this season, numbers that were truncated by a month-long DL stint in August for elbow soreness as well as an innings limit that ended his season in the middle of September. Still, he ranked 2nd on the team with 9 winning decisions, a 1.126 WHIP, and 7.0 hits per nine innings, third among qualifying Brewers pitchers in ERA (2.81) and ERA+ (152), FIP (3.71), and strikeout rate (7.4 K/9), fourth in strikeouts (100), and 5th on the team in innings pitched. His 22 runs prevented was far-and-away the best mark on the staff as well as the 13th-best total in the Major Leagues. Guerra was valued at 4.0 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference, 1.5 wins more than the 2nd-best pitcher on the team.
Our Milwaukee Nine won only 73 games this season, but stories like that of Junior Guerra tend to happen when a non-contending team gives a journeyman a chance to thrive that he otherwise may have never received. No one knew who Junior Guerra was a year ago, and here we are talking about his historic rookie season. From all indications it doesn’t appear as though the club is motivated to trade Junior this winter, meaning that he could very well get the ball to start the 2017 season on April 3rd against the Colorado Rockies at Miller Park.
No matter what may happen between now and then, Junior Guerra was voted by you all as Brew Crew Ball’s #3 MVBrewer and the most valuable pitcher, locking up the title of #2016BrewersAce.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference