Players get signed out of the various independent baseball leagues by MLB organizations all the time. Just this season, our own Milwaukee Brewers have inked two indy leaguers, both right handed pitchers: Santos Saldivar from the Sonoma Stompers and Tayler Scott from Sioux City Explorers.
Milwaukee’s big league starting rotation is of course lead by #2016BrewersAce Junior Guerra, who returns to the mound tonight against Pittsburgh after spending nearly a month on the disabled list with elbow inflammation (he threw 3.1 scoreless innings in his lone rehab start for Colorado Springs). Guerra himself is an alumnus of a myriad of different unaffiliated baseball leagues all around the world, begging the question - how did it take so long for Juni G to find his way back to a big league organization?
I ask because earlier in the week J.J. Cooper of Baseball America tweeted out a link to this report from 2013, the Independent League Top 10 Prospects list from that year. Sitting at number 9 was our friend Junior. Here’s what Cooper had to say about the 31 year old rookie sensation some three years ago:
A former catcher in the Braves system who moved to the mound because of his excellent arm, Guerra made it to high Class A with the Mets, but was released in 2009 after he was suspended 50 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Guerra spent the next two years pitching in Italy before coming back to the States in 2011. He was Wichita’s ace this year while showing some of the best stuff of any independent league starter.
“He’s got the best stuff in the league hands down,” Wichita manager Kevin Hooper said. “He’s flat out electric.”
Guerra’s fastball sat 92-95 mph, touching 97, and he showed he could maintain that velocity even when he pitched on short rest, as he did in the playoffs. When he gets ahead of hitters, he turns to a split-finger fastball to put them away. He also throws a biting slider, although he sometimes struggles to stay on top of it, and an improved changeup he tweaked this year.
Guerra’s age and previous suspension works against him, but his kind of stuff could get him another shot at affiliated ball either as a starter or a power reliever.
Guerra was terrific that season with the Wichita Wingnuts of the American Association, working to a 3.30 ERA with 126 strikeouts and 58 walks in 122.2 innings pitched. Yet it would still take another two years for Junior to sign a minor league deal with the White Sox, and he was pitching in Italy at the time! Not one team got enough of a look while he was displaying his outstanding stuff here stateside to be enticed into offering him a contract?
It’s a credit to Junior for continuing to persevere through what were no doubt some very discouraging times. He’s finally getting his first extended shot at the big leagues and thriving. He’s even shown the ability to adapt and adjust his game at the major league level, working with pitching coach Derek Johnson adding a sinker to his arsenal mid-season.
Prior to his start on July 19th, Guerra was throwing his four-seamer 57.61% of the time. Since then, however, he’s dropped his four-seam usage to 39.80% while tossing the sinker 28.72% of the time at an average velocity of 94 MPH. The pitch has four more inches of horizontal break than his four-seamer does, and he has used it heavily against right handers while mostly saving his four-seam fastball for southpaw hitters. He’s generating grounders at a 60% clip against his sinker and has allowed only six singles with a .000 Isolated Power mark against the pitch. The additional offering gives Junior yet another look to throw hitters off with, as he’s used his four-seamer much differently than his sinker.
We can still expect Junior to use his signature split-finger as his punch out pitch against the Pirates tonight, of course, but it’s interesting to see how this well-traveled rookie is making major adjustments at the big league level. Guerra’s makeup and the ability that he has demonstrated to adapt to hitters early on in his major league career bode well for him to have an extended period of success beyond this season.
And to think, nobody thought Junior Guerra was interesting enough to sign to a minor league deal after he tore through the American Association three years ago.
Statistics courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference