A seemingly impossible dream lies within reach for Red Sox minor leaguer Luis Guerrero.
Born in the Dominican, the 22-year-old moved to Boston as a child, growing up near Franklin Park. As a kid, he imagined a future following in the footsteps of David Ortiz, Manny Ramírez, and Pedro Martínez. When the Sox took him in the 17th round of the 2021 draft out of Chipola College in Florida, Guerrero wasn’t the only one who saw a daydream coming to life.
“When the Red Sox called me, I told my mom immediately, and she started crying,” Guerrero said through translator Carlos Villoria-Benitez in spring training. “She told me that she dreamed [the night before] about me getting picked by the Red Sox.”
Less than two years later, Guerrero has jumped on an accelerated development path. Though he was expected at the start of spring training to open this year in High-A Greenville, an eye-opening camp resulted in placement in Double-A Portland.
Pitching professionally in New England, Fenway Park is within view. Yet that represents just part of Guerrero’s unlikely story.
At first glance, Guerrero does not look like someone who should be a top Red Sox bullpen prospect. The righthander walks with a limp. His right leg — the one with which he pushes off on the rubber — drags stiffly.
RHP Luis Guerrero is the top pure relief pitching prospect in the Red Sox system. Check out this three pitch sequence from last night: 87 mph slider away, 96 mph fastball in, 83 mph splitter down. Full scouting report: https://t.co/sJRefaoCMu pic.twitter.com/XyD3lV3TTH— Ian Cundall (@IanCundall) April 12, 2023
“I got surgery in my knee when I was a year or so old. I was hospitalized for nine months,” said Guerrero. “Those muscles didn’t grow up like the other muscles, so that’s why I have limited mobility in my knee.
“[But] for pitching, you just need to bend [the back knee] a little bit,” he added. “My knee bends just as much as I need it to.”
Still, the appearance of a physical limitation represented a source of initial concern — or at least confusion — to evaluators who saw him at Chipola.
“[Scouts] kept coming in like, ‘Is the leg gonna be a problem?’ ” recalled Red Sox North Florida area scout Dante Ricciardi.
But Ricciardi and Sox Florida cross-checker Tom Kotchman saw reason to look beyond one unusual trait. Kotchman — in his 45th season as a minor league manager and scout — recalled Angels spring training in 1989, when Jim Abbott, the lefthander who was born without a right hand, offered an unforgettable lesson about judging players by performance. He also saw Jim Mecir, born with a clubfoot, pitch in 474 regular-season games.
“These guys have intangibles where they never take anything for granted,” said Kotchman. “They just have something that’s obviously ingrained in them. That is a separator.”
And in Guerrero, Kotchman and Ricciardi saw a player who had athleticism and overall bodily flexibility that suggested the limp need not be seen as an impediment. Particularly given Guerrero’s dedication to improvement: The righthander went from topping out at 91 miles per hour at the start of his senior year of high school (for which he’d moved to Miami) to 94-95 m.p.h. as a freshman at Chipola in early 2020.
When the pandemic shut down the world in March, Guerrero went home to Boston, but didn’t stop working. Without indoor facilities available, he threw in narrow driveways between triple-deckers and on fields overgrown with weeds.
The velocity kept coming — 96, 98, 99 . . . and finally, 100.
“[Throwing that hard] was a big accomplishment for me. I know a lot of people don’t see me as a major league player because of my trouble with my knee. But I don’t put limits on my body,” said Guerrero. “When I was able to reach 100, it was a big deal for me. I said, ‘OK, now we go.’ ”
When baseball returned to action in 2021, the Sox saw Guerrero working in the mid-90s as a starter, topping out at 97. Moreover, among the six pitch types Guerrero used, Ricciardi identified his splitter as a potentially elite weapon during an outing against Gulf Coast State College.
“He threw 30 splitters and got 25 swing-and-misses on it,” said Ricciardi. “I was like, ‘Holy hell. This has a chance to be a legitimate plus pitch.’ ”
Once the Sox selected Guerrero, they moved him to the bullpen and asked him to reduce his six-pitch mix to three: A fastball, splitter, and slider. Guerrero bought into the adjustment in a way that earned raves.
“If he’s not our most focused player, he’s in the conversation about, ‘This is what I need to do every single day to get myself better,’ ” said Red Sox minor league senior pitching coordinator Shawn Haviland. “He asked great questions. ‘What do I need to do?’ ‘What are my weaknesses and how do I address them to get to the big leagues?’ Some people will say those things and then not listen to the answer. They just want you to think they care. For him, he takes it in, he makes a plan, he gets himself better starting the very next day.”
In his pro debut in 2022, Guerrero (working in the mid- to upper-90s) often overmatched opponents in Single-A Salem and High-A Greenville, striking out 35.5 percent of hitters. He looked like a future big-league reliever.
But when he returned to Fort Myers this spring, his fastball had increased by 1-2 m.p.h. and his splitter had sharpened, suggesting he’d raised his ceiling. That development, combined with his status as one of the hardest workers in the organization and someone with makeup to handle both adversity and success, resulted in an assignment to Portland.
“We learned a while ago not to put any limitations on what he can do,” said Haviland. “We’re just going to continue to challenge him and hope that he goes out and beats Double-A and then beats Triple-A and hopefully will be pitching in a leverage spot for us in the big leagues.”
For Guerrero, the idea of pitching for the Red Sox is one worth celebrating. Not only for what it would mean to him and his family, but also because of what it could mean to others who learn his story.
“For me to pitch in Major League Baseball with the condition I have in my knee would be a big accomplishment,” said Guerrero. “I won’t put any physical limits or mental limits on what I can do compared to anyone else. For me and of course for my family, it’s going to be great and a dream come true, but it can also be an inspiration for everyone else.”
⋅ Middle infielder David Hamilton — just outside Baseball America’s top 30 Red Sox prospects entering the year — is off to an electrifying start in Triple-A Worcester, hitting .419/.438/.839 with three homers and five steals in eight games. While the 25-year-old hit a ton of infield pop-ups last year, trying to force power to the pull side, Hamilton has been crushing line drives and fly balls while taking more of an all-fields approach this year. Eight of his first 24 balls in play had exit velocities of more than 100 m.p.h.
⋅ Infielder Chase Meidroth (No. 27) has jumped out of the gate in High-A Greenville, going 6-for-12 with twice as many walks (6) as strikeouts (3) in his first four games.
⋅ Lefthander Dalton Rogers (No. 22), a third-round pick in 2022, had an overpowering first start, allowing one unearned run on one hit and two walks over four innings while striking out eight.
⋅ While righthander Bryan Mata (No. 8) has shown elite velocity, sitting at 97-98 m.p.h. and topping out between 99-100 with his sinker and four-seamer for Triple-A Worcester on Wednesday, he’s struggled to throw strikes, walking eight batters and hitting four in eight innings.
⋅ WooSox second baseman Enmanuel Valdez is off to a slow start (.148/.281/.222), including 0-for-9 with five strikeouts against lefties.
⋅ Shortstop Marcelo Mayer (No. 1) had the first four-strikeout game of his professional career — and probably his life — Wednesday for High-A Greenville. He’s stumbled to start the year, going 2-for-15 with eight strikeouts in his first 18 plate appearances over four games.