After a drug suspension, former Dodgers closer Javy Guerra looks to resuscitate his career in Angels bullpen

Javy Guerra used the words "ignorance" and "stupidity" to describe his mind-set last July, when he was suspended for 50 games for a second positive test for a drug of abuse.

The former Dodgers closer, who is trying win a spot in the Angels bullpen this spring, would not reveal the substance that led to his penalty under baseball's minor league drug program, which he first violated as a 19-year-old Class-A pitcher in 2005. But he did want to make one thing clear.

"It was not a performance-enhancing drug; it was actually a performance de-hancer," Guerra said Monday, concocting a word to make his point. "I want people to know I've never needed anything to enhance myself to pitch at this level. I've never had to cheat to get anything I've accomplished in this game."

Guerra's suspension was the low point in a career that has been in free fall since late April 2012, when the right-hander was hit in the face by a line drive off Brian McCann's bat, blew two of his next three save opportunities and lost the Dodgers' closing job to Kenley Jansen.

The next three years were marked by shoulder, knee and rib-cage injuries, shoulder surgery, several promotions and demotions between the big leagues and triple A, a 2014 waiver claim by the Chicago White Sox and his drug suspension.

All of which landed Guerra, 30, in Angels camp on a minor league contract with a chance to resuscitate his career.

"I'm still the same guy; I still have the same stuff," said Guerra, who combines a 93-mph fastball with a curve, slider and changeup. "I understand the opportunity at hand. That was a big reason why I came here."

The back of the bullpen is set with closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith, but the other five spots are up for grabs. Mike Morin, Al Alburquerque, Cam Bedrosian, Fernando Salas, Jose Alvarez and Cory Rasmus are the leading contenders.

If Guerra can regain something close to his rookie form from 2011, when he had a 2.31 earned-run average and 21 saves in 47 games for the Dodgers, he could elbow his way into the picture.

"He had everything you want in a reliever — good fastball command, a big breaking ball, and the ability to make pitches," said Street, who closed for Colorado in 2011. "He went through spells when he came in and you thought the game was over. When I saw him here, I thought, 'Damn, that's a good arm.'"

The 6-foot-1 Guerra, who has bulked up to 225 pounds, spent most of 2013 at triple A. He had a decent 2014 for the White Sox, posting a 2.91 ERA in 42 games, but appeared in only three big league games during an injury- and suspension-marred 2015. Some of the injuries could have been avoided, Guerra said.

"I have to take a bigger role in making sure I'm ready every day and understand my body is going to break down if I don't take care of it," Guerra said. "You're getting older every day. You have to make sure you go through your stretches and progressions and have a routine."

The drug suspension came three days after Guerra was dropped from the White Sox's 40-man roster, which left him susceptible to the minor leagues' more stringent drug program.

"It was my fault," Guerra said. "It was ignorance on my part. I should have known the rules better. I apologize to the fans. I think I've grown as a person. I'm ready to turn the page and move forward in my career."

Guerra took drug-counseling classes as part of his treatment program and was reinstated in late August. His sore shoulder prevented him from pitching until January, when he threw bullpen sessions for several teams.

"We didn't put a radar gun on him, because that's not important that time of year," Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said. "It looked like everything was moving free and easy. The ease of operation was consistent with what we saw prior to the injury. That gave us the confidence to give him a go."

The Angels' last investment in a player with known drug suspensions — their $125-million deal for Josh Hamilton — blew up on them after the left fielder's substance-abuse relapse last spring.

Guerra's split contract calls for a $700,000 salary in the big leagues. Eppler said he vetted the pitcher and was satisfied with how Guerra handled the suspension.

"You don't often get guys who are that young, with his track record, on minor league deals," Eppler said. "He can miss bats. He can induce weak contact. There are some ingredients there that we like."

Short hops

Hector Santiago will start Wednesday's Cactus League opener against San Francisco, with Matt Shoemaker scheduled to follow Santiago to the mound. Garrett Richards will start Thursday against Oakland, and Jered Weaver will start Friday against the Chicago Cubs. . . . Outfielder Andrew Brown, a nonroster invitee to camp, retired Monday.

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 01, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Mistake 'n' indemnity - Having paid his debt to baseball society, Javy Guerra looks to rehab his image, and career, with Angels after drug suspension" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
EDITION: California | U.S. & World