PEORIA, Ariz. — Javy Guerra threw his first pitch as a professional baseball player in an empty stadium in Peoria two weeks ago. Five Padres officials were the only people in the building with him. His first pitch hit 96 mph. It only got better from there.
He announced to the group that he would hit 100 mph, then did so on his next delivery.
And so when the Padres optioned the one-time shortstop phenom – the player who headlined their return package in the Craig Kimbrel trade four winters ago – to El Paso, it was to begin the process of becoming a pitcher.
The birth of an idea
At some point, the idea gets tossed out jokingly for every hard-throwing position player. “If it doesn’t work out, he could be interesting on the mound.”
But those are just jokes. Until they aren’t.
In 24 plate appearances this spring, Guerra managed just a .390 OPS and his demeanor largely gave the impression of a defeated man. When the club optioned him, it would be the third and final time they could do so without exposing him to waivers. At 23-years old, having already been lapped by Fernando Tatis Jr. and with a bevy of middle infield prospects coming behind him, Guerra’s future in the game looked improbable.
So, a few members of the organization’s brain trust, including A.J. Preller, Andy Green, and Sam Geaney batted the idea around, and then they approach Guerra with a proposal.
“We explained to him that we still see him as a position player, but obviously he’s got a special gift with his throwing arm and just wanted to see how it looked if he went on the mound,” said Preller. “We talked to him about a few other conversion guys we’ve seen try it, so just asked him to go on the mound and mess around and throw us a handful of heaters and just see what it looks like.”
Geaney had a meeting with some of the organization’s pro scouts just before the scheduled throwing session.
“I found myself a little distracted throughout the whole meeting because I knew that at ten o’clock we were going to see something perhaps very interesting,” said Geaney, the Padres’ Senior Director of Player Development.
Guerra’s session was over almost before it began. But the results left an impression.
“He threw about 12-15 fastballs and spun a few sliders at the end,” said Preller. “It was clear that he has arm strength and he was able to command the baseball. All of us there thought it was intriguing and I think most importantly, Javy thought it was intriguing coming out of it.”
“What struck me was that the whole experience was fun, in a comfortable environment,” said Geaney. “It was very low-stakes and we didn’t know what would come of it. But when he started flipping it in there, it was clear that this was something pretty special and something that might be worth pursuing.”
And so 31 months after the team shut Guerra down during his first season in the organization, 20 months after trying to inspire confidence by promoting him to Double-A, and presumably near the end of the line, the player and the organization agreed: this was the best path forward.
A new path
Guerra’s tenure in the Padres system has been a journey.
After slugging .449 as a teenager for the Red Sox Lo-A Greenville affiliate in 2015, his first campaign in the Padres system was an unmitigated disaster at the plate. Guerra struck out in a third of his plate appearances and posted an improbable .202/.264/.325 slash line.
By late July, everything had fallen out of sync for the Panamanian star. After whiffing in 12 of his final 27 at-bats, he landed on the disabled list August 7. The club never fully explained that move, but Guerra took a leave of absence and returned home that week. The following spring, he acknowledged in an interview with us that he’d felt stress and not “quite right” as he struggled through the campaign.
Refreshed and newly-added to the 40-man roster, Guerra returned to Lake Elsinore to open his 2017 campaign, but the results were equally rough through June. When he got hot in July, posting an .805 OPS in 15 games, the Padres bumped him up to San Antonio in the hopes he’d continue to thrive.
Instead, he came crashing back down to earth over the rest of the season. Having fallen from a consensus Top-100 prospect in the game to an almost forgotten man, Guerra finished the season with career lows in on-base percentage and isolated power.
After opening 2018 with El Paso, Guerra got a brief taste of the big leagues when the Padres added him as the 26th man for their trip to Mexico, but he struck out in both his pinch-hitting appearances. He finished out the Triple-A campaign with another uninspiring performance, but rejoined the big league club briefly in September.
Now, though, that all might serve as a fascinating prelude to Guerra’s career.
Charting a course
Guerra has yet to face live hitters and he’s just been introduced to the team’s throwing and arm-care programs. So, when the Padres announce the rosters of their full-season affiliates later today, Guerra’s name won’t appear.
He’ll stay back in extended spring training to acclimate and see what happens when there are hitters in the box against him.
“The next month and a half, two months, I think we’ve got a rough idea of the schedule,” said Geaney. “Commence with a series of bullpens – more than a handful and less than two handfuls – then some live BPs and progressing to game work. All of that is going to be subject to change and how Javy’s responding.”
Of course, pitching conversions are nothing new for the Padres. They made an ill-fated attempt to turn Christian Bethencourt into a two-way weapon in 2016. But they also moved Jose Ruiz from behind the plate to the mound midway through the 2016 season and he debuted in the majors just a year later. Carlos Belen is in his own process of converting right now.
“I think you learn things from each experiment,” said Preller. “But honestly, each one of these guys is an individual and we’ll handle Javy according to what type of ability he shows and what he needs to do to get better.
“In the limited time we’ve seen him so far, he’s got command, he’s got a clean arm stroke, he’s a good athlete obviously, and it looks like he can do some things with a baseball, so that’s a good place to start.”
For now, perhaps the most important thing is that, for the first time in a long time, there’s a smile on Guerra’s face talking about baseball and there’s optimism about his future.
“We think it has the chance to be special,” said Geaney. “And he does as well.”
If things go as hoped, fans should expect to see Guerra at a full-season affiliate by late spring. His performance will drive where he goes from there.