Last Call: the shortlived hype, and real struggles of Javier Guerra

Sometimes, What’s Brewing On The Farm can’t contain all of our hot prospect takes. Last Call is a semi-weekly installment sure to quench any remaining prospect thirst you might have.

The best thing about the newly minted What’s Brewing On The Farm feature at Padres Public is how it’s become a perpetual content generator. The Padres have finally embraced the #FullLuhnow (#FullHoyer?) and are tanking games with the greatest of ease; the All-Star hype has given way to an admission that the team is, in fact, currently engaged in a full rebuild.

All eyes are on the farm system, and – as Billy and I discussed last week – a lot of those eyes are no longer focused on what many perceived to be the crown jewel of the Craig Kimbrel deal: Javier Guerra. This season has been disastrous.

In their midseason Top 100, Baseball America – the only publication that still listed Guerra (No.87) in their midseason rankings – provided a pretty blunt assessment of Guerra:

guerraBA

That’s…rough. But because Padres fans are endlessly optimistic (or reliably gullible), with one swing in April, I was able to shrug aside nearly two weeks’ worth of struggles and some unfavorable chatter, and was teased with the prospect we had all read about this winter.

Yes, it’s one swing! But maybe prospect writers weren’t just fawning over Guerra’s gaudy home run totals from a season ago. Maybe some lackluster scouting reports from the previous week were premature. Maybe the Padres had finally plucked a toolsy shortstop from a system that could blossom into a major league contributor in their own.

It’s one swing, but Guerra’s bat speed appears better than average, the bat head gets into the zone quickly, and – ultimately – he manages to turn on 94 MPH (according to the stadium gun) and string a rope 32’ up a 36’ fence. And, sure, both the shotgun-like blast of bat meeting ball and resulting cacophony off the monster just sound nice.

Unfortunately, dreams usually come crashing back to earth. It was but one swing, and the thought of a “possible cleanup hitter who competes for MVP awards,” or even the more modest proposal of a “slam-dunk first-division shortstop” feel like near-impossibilities after this nightmare season.

The reality: in the four games I attended in April and May, Guerra swung through nearly three times the amount of pitches he made contact with – and that’s including foul balls. He appeared to be guessing in many situations, and never appeared interested in shortening up or driving the ball to all fields – a supposed strength a season ago.

The foul balls he did hit were repeatedly beaten into and over the visitors’ dugout, as he appeared dialed in on a fastball in nearly every at-bat. I saw him work a couple 2-0 counts into strikeouts. I’m no scout, but the toe tap that Guerra utilizes for timing appeared inconsistent at-bat to at-bat. The result was a ton of swing-and-miss, even for a guy that was expected to whiff a fair amount. What I saw was no secret, nor an indictment on the player. Simply an observation of a young player’s early struggles with a new team at the next level.

Arguably, things are a lot clearer now:

If you look at Guerra’s stats, the thing that jumps out are his strikeout rates – up from 23.5% to 32.7%, year-to-year. Guerra is one of five players (min. 300 PA) in the California League with a 30% strikeout rate or higher, and his OBP is 60 points below the next person on that list. His 60 wRC+ is half of what it was last season.

As for his defense? Well, what I observed was slightly more encouraging. Guerra and Luis Urias were on the field early dialing in their defensive repertoire. Guerra was the notably smoother defender in practice, and the same could be said in games. He did make a throwing error on a ball he could have been quicker to, but it didn’t feel like he was rushed into throwing it away.

I’ve read a couple reports – including one from Baseball Prospectus – that mention nonchalant or lazy actions, but I just figured it was a combination of fluidity and confidence that makes what he does look easy. I suppose this is but one of nearly a thousand reasons why I’m not a scout.

However, nearly every prospect writer or scouting report on Guerra has mentioned his poor/raw approach. Early in the season, this could have been explained away by his age or relative experience level. Now? Well, it’s taken on a more distressing tone.

It’s only one opinion, you might try to convince yourself. Unfortunately, this idea that Guerra has shown signs of mental fatigue or outright defeat on the field is not an uncommon sentiment and it seems word has trickled up to Keith Law as well.

Law reiterated this in yesterday’s chat. “Makeup concerns” can mean any number of things, but the notable thing is that people have noticed and that it’s become apparent while he’s on the field.

Guerra hasn’t played since August 7th, and his season hit yet another speedbump as he was placed on the 7-day DL for an “undisclosed, non-baseball-related health issue” on August 16th. It would be inappropriate to speculate as to whether this is related to the aforementioned makeup concerns, and the bottom line is it is irrelevant. One should hope this time away from the diamond helps him return healthier as a player, and – more importantly – a person moving forward.

So, what next?

The parent club isn’t especially deep at shortstop, especially at the highest levels. The Padres just recently acquired Luis Sardinas from the Mariners; for better or worse, he’s no less suitable stopgap overall than their current in-house options. Shortstop is an open audition, and the organization is full of fringe prospects in their mid- to late-20s, or organizational filler who will likely get a shot over the next few years.

After that, A.J. Preller can choose to deal some of his newly acquired farm depth for a major league starter, or he can see if Guerra and the hoard of teenage middle infielders in the low minors can handle the starting job; as ownership has set their next window to compete at 2019, that’s plenty of time to let things develop.

Guerra doesn’t have that luxury. A down 2016 has opened the door to competition for a position where he was previously deemed the heir apparent. As previously mentioned, while nobody is beating down the door at the upper levels, the Padres just flooded their system with young talent who currently list shortstop as their position. That includes draft interview darling and the smoking gun of Padres Public’s draft day conspiracy, Hudson Potts.

This wave of talent is even more of a mystery than Guerra, but they’re also players that Preller and his team will have hand selected and helped develop from the ground up into professional ballplayers. Which leads us to 2017, and the club’s options:

  1. Send Guerra to Fort Wayne. Not sure what this accomplishes, given the league stifles hitters and the org has seen what he can do against less advanced pitching. The only argument I see is it could give him more cushion in an attempt to get back to basics, but that’s something that should be accomplished during the offseason into Spring Training.
  2. Keep Guerra in Lake Elsinore. This is the most obvious choice, given his lackluster performance and organizational depth chart. If the issue is mechanical, Guerra has the next 6-8 months to iron it out before going back to a hitters’ league. Perhaps that’s all the confidence he needs.
  3. Promote Guerra to San Antonio. Barring some major positive developments this offseason, this almost feels cruel for somebody battling with pitch recognition and potential makeup concerns. There just isn’t a lot to gain by sending a struggling a player to face more talented competition, unless the goal is to prove he can’t hack it.

As a 20-year-old, Javier Guerra still has a lot of time to get things back on track. It’s an uphill struggle, and I’m not sure if this is just more advanced talent winning out, or if he can right the ship by ironing something out mechanically – the organization has access to that sort of information and they’ll continue to develop Guerra in a way in which he can best succeed.

The issue is how he’ll respond, because his ascent to the top seems a lot less certain than before.

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  • Axion

    This is legit hurting my heart right now.

  • ballybunion

    Post-trade depression? Loss of friends among Red Sox prospects? Another year of High-A might take care of that, with new friends and distance (time) from the trade. It’s not good for the Padres, who were probably hoping for quick development and an early jump to Petco, but long term it could be better for Guerra and ultimately the Padres for him to work out the mental/social aspects of the game before he hits the limelight. I remember what I was like at 20, so I’m not too concerned. Yet.