Peoria, Ariz. -- A year ago, Javier Guerra was expected to be The Next Big Thing among Padres prospects.
He was coming off a year in which he’d hit 15 homers as a 19-year-old in full-season ball while playing strong shortstop defense. He was the headliner in a trade for a four-time All-Star. He was the starting shortstop for his Panamanian National Team’s effort to qualify for the World Baseball Classic.
But what transpired on the field was definitely not what Guerra, the Padres, or anyone might have hoped for.
By the end of his first week in the Cal League, Guerra had racked up 15 strikeouts in 30 trips to the plate. He spent a total of five days during the season with an OBP above .300. His OPS for the month of May was .388.
Faced with failure he’d never experienced before, Guerra struggled to keep going. He was visibly uncomfortable at the plate and in the field during most of our trips to Lake Elsinore. Padres instruction and player development staff seemed unsure how to help him focus on improvement.
Ultimately, the team placed Guerra on the disabled list on August 12 and sent him home from the team.
While health privacy laws prevent the organization from confirming it, conversations with the Guerra make it clear that he was struggling with his mental health in more than an “all guys go through ups and downs” sort of way.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Guerra spent the better part of six months not playing baseball. While he came to Peoria for Instructional League, he did limited work and appeared in no games until the prospect game hosted in Petco Park (where he had a groundout and strikeout).
We talked with Guerra with the assistance of a team translator about last year and how he’s refocusing to go into the 2017 season.
MadFriars: What has the experience in big league camp meant for you this spring?
Javier Guerra: It’s been a really good experience. It’s my first time being in big league camp and I want to take advantage of everything I can and bring it with me to wherever I go this year.
Last season, did it just feel like you got into a cycle where things kept building along a downward cycle?
Javier Guerra: Obviously, I think things got that way. Honestly, there was a period when I wasn’t quite sure what to do. There were days when it would just accumulate and carry on that way. Like I said earlier, it wound up being a powerful experience for me because I learned so much from it.
When we saw you in June and July last year, obviously it was hard. What ultimately went into the decision to shut things down in August?
Javier Guerra: I really look at last year as being in the past. It was a very difficult year, but at the same time, I think maybe it was my best year in the sense that I learned so much from negative experiences. So, it was important because I was able to learn a lot.
Who all was involved in the decision to shut things down?
Javier Guerra: It wasn’t something that serious. It was a conversation with the trainers and some of the staff together. I just didn’t feel quite right playing in terms of fatigue and stress. Those are the things that went into it.
After getting shut down last summer, what was it like to be at instructs but not taking part in game action? What did you take away from the experience?
Javier Guerra: From instructs on, until now, I’ve just been focusing on how to do things better, how to go about my work better. I’ve been calm, but just reviewing things that were a little out of order for me. I’ve been taking the time from then until now to try to fix them.
Were you involved in the instructional program in the Dominican in January?
Javier Guerra: No. After instructs here in the U.S., I went home and didn’t have any other activities until I got here.
What did you focus on to be able to come back ready to go this year?
Javier Guerra: A lot. The most simple and basic one is just to enjoy the game every day. To go out there and enjoy it with my teammates and the people around me, and then keep a positive mentality day in and day out. Talking to myself in a positive manner. Those are the two most basic ones.
Is there anyone in particular, either in the organization or in your family or friends who you feel can be more of a support systems this year?
Javier Guerra: Sure. The same as always. My parents, my sisters, and I have some close friends.
Going into this season, what are your goals both on the field and off?
Javier Guerra: I think for me, my goals are to push myself to take care of my body and to maintain myself in a healthy way. To make sure I’m healthy, I’m strong, I’m flexible, I’m relaxed. Making sure I’m good physically, and then the rest is baseball and letting it play out.
Last year, you were with the Panamanian national team in the middle of spring training. Were there any negatives to go along with the positives of that experience?
Javier Guerra: It was a tremendous, tremendous experience. The intensity of the games was different, like you were in the playoffs. The negative was that we didn’t advance.
Did not having the face time and the exposure with the Padres’ coaching staff and other players in your first year in the organization impact the pressure you felt?
Javier Guerra: It wasn’t a big issue. It was only seven days that I was away.