Guerra aims to build on breakthrough season

Guerra aims to build on breakthrough season

PHOENIX -- It was a small reminder of how significantly Junior Guerra's baseball story has been rewritten over the past year. On a couple of occasions over the winter, he went to Estadio Universitario in Caracas, Venezuela, and instead of heading toward the clubhouse to put on his uniform, he sat in the stands as a fan.

Guerra had pitched for Tiburones de La Guaira in each of the previous eight seasons, since he was a 23-year-old Mets farmhand. Now he was going on 32 and coming off a breakthrough season in the Major Leagues that saw him post a 2.81 ERA in 20 Brewers starts. Because he logged a career-high number of innings between Triple-A and the big leagues, and spent a month on the disabled list with an elbow injury, the Brewers strongly urged Guerra to take the winter off. Reluctantly, he obliged.

Which is how he found himself in the stands rooting for his former team, the Sharks.

"It felt weird," Guerra said through translator Carlos Brizuela. "It was different."

Did he draw notice from other fans in the stands?

"Si, si, si," Guerra said.

His heightened fame highlights another difference. In January, when Guerra announced he would pitch for the Sharks in the Venezuelan playoffs, it made big news there. The Brewers had to step in and suggest he reconsider, a step Guerra has subsequently said he understands.

Guerra's masterful start

Brewers officials had no formal mechanism to stop Guerra from playing winter ball, but they would have been able to block him from participating in the World Baseball Classic because of his DL stint last season. In the end, it was a non-issue. Perhaps anticipating that objection, Venezuela did not put Guerra on the roster.

So he will remain at Maryvale Baseball Park to prepare for what Guerra and the Brewers hope is his first full season in the Major Leagues. In the absence of winter ball, Guerra prepared by working out at a friend's baseball academy.

"It was a little bit different. I've been playing winter ball all my life," Guerra said. "But I was able to get on a program with my shoulder, strengthening that. I was able to spend a little bit more time with that, which was nice. I was able to get ready to come here for Spring Training.

"I did throw live [batting practice] and bullpens in Venezuela, and I've been throwing bullpens since I've been here. Yeah, I might be a little farther away than usual, but it's not that much farther away."

It will be only the latest adjustment for Guerra, who has pitched professionally in Italy and Spain in addition to his stints in Venezuela. He came to the Brewers from the White Sox as a waiver claim in October 2015, the first player acquired by new GM David Stearns. After missing the cut for the Opening Day bullpen, Guerra didn't join the Brewers' rotation until May.

A year later, as Brewers pitchers and catchers took part in the team's first formal workout Wednesday, Guerra was coming off a season in which he was Milwaukee's best starting pitcher.

"Last year, I walked in and didn't really know [anything]," Guerra said. "It was my first big league Spring Training, so I was trying to figure everything out. I was a little nervous. In the end, I was able to work hard and [although] I didn't make the roster out of Spring Training, things worked out. I made it up there."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.