Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thursday Throwback - Juan Berenguer

(This column used to be called Random Ex-Brave.)

He only saved 32 games during a 15 year-career, but in 1991, Juan Berenguer was the closest thing the worst-to-first Braves had to a late inning stopper until the late season acquisition of Alejandro Pena. It was Berenguer's unfortunate luck that led to the trade of Pena. It would be the last great run for the 36 year-old righty from Panama with the kind of power arm that teams salivate over nowadays.

TradingCardDB.com
It's a funny little story how Berenguer even got signed to begin with. In 1975, a Mets scout saw a game in Panama where Berenguer displayed his potential with devastating fastballs to hitters who weren't used to facing major league quality pitching. The scout went to the young man's house the next morning and woke up Berenguer's mother. Wishing to not wake her son, Berenguer's mother nearly forced her son to miss a chance. Thankfully, his brother was also awake and got his younger sibling out of bed to meet the scout. Less than 13 hours later, he had signed his first professional contract.

Six years before I was born and well over 30 years before the Braves spent four years in Lynchburg, Berenguer played for the Lynchburg Mets in 1976. He was part of a younger crop of Mets players that missed the mid-80's success. He pitched 16 times over three years in Flushing, but was squeezed out in 1981 with the Mets dealing him to the Royals. He had a woeful rookie year that saw him finish the year with the Blue Jays in the strike-shortened '81 season. Berenguer led the AL in loses with 13. It was the only time he would ever lead the league in anything. The Jays quickly soured on Berenguer and cut him the next spring where he would sign with the Tigers.

The problem was that while he had sick velocity, especially in a time period where pitchers focused more on location than the heater, Berenguer had no secondary options. His changeup wasn't very good and Berenguer was destined to become a hard-throwing Chuck James, but fate would have his back with the Tigers. After spending 1982 mostly in the minors polishing up his game with a new split-fingered pitch, Berenguer joined the Tigers for good the next season as a swingman. After bits of five years where he logged 150.1 innings with four teams, Berenguer pitched in 157.2 ING in '83 with a 1.15 WHIP. He still walked a decent amount and gave up homers, but his split-finger kept hitters off-balance enough to avoid the awful ERAs he had seen in the majors to that point.

In 1984, Berenguer continued to roll, this time setting a personal high in innings pitched with 168.1. He also walked 79, which continued a trend of iffy control. That fall, he was on the postseason roster, but despite throwing the fourth most innings that season for the Tigers, he never made it out of the pen for his designated role as middle inning mop-up duty. Nevertheless, he took home his first World Series ring after the Tigers beat the Padres in five.

After an ugly fourth season with the Tigers, Detroit sent Berenguer packing after 1985 to the Giants with future manager Bob Melvin. Berenguer was probably desired by the guy who had taught him the split-finger fastball - Giants manager Roger Craig, his former pitching coach with the Tigers. Though he had a solid 1986 - especially for his standards - he couldn't get back into the starting rotation after an ugly April. Still, he finished the year with a 2.70 ERA, which would be his best single-season mark until 1991. Fed up with a lack of big innings either as a primary reliever or starter, Berenguer wanted to be traded. He hoped for a move to the Twins, but that could not be facilitated. He made enough of a stink that the Giants cut him after the season and he went to Minnesota anyway.

He had a magical 1987 with the eventual World Series Champs. The starting staff didn't need much help so he only got a half-dozen starts. One reason Berenguer liked Minnesota so much was the chance to close, but shortly before the season, the Twins picked up Jeff Reardon. Upset that he again would be headed to middle relief, Berenguer was told that he would play a vital role with an unproven rotation that would need a bridge to Reardon. It was an observation that proved correct because Juan Berenguer would throw 112 innings for the Twins and become a fan favorite. He even was gifted with the moniker - Senor Smoke. And then...there was the Berenguer Boogie. Yeah...it's a damn good thing they won it all because otherwise, that was enough reason for heads to roll. Berenguer finally got to pitch in the playoffs. He was superb against his former mates, the Tigers, but got roughed up against the Cards.

Senor Smoke would stick with the Twins for a trio of seasons beyond 1987. He remained consistently decent, though his control got worse and his strikeouts plummeted. After 1990, the Twins thanked Berenguer, but moved on.

Berenguer joined the resurgent Atlanta Braves on a one-year contract. He joined a crew of veterans that were descending on Atlanta with a chance to join with some of the best young talent in baseball. The late inning picture was certainly up for grabs. Berenguer got the season's first save with a three-inning appearance in a 7-5 win against the Reds, but Kent Mercker (Throwback Profile) would get the next two. It really wasn't until late May that Bobby Cox settled on Berenguer as his late inning guy and he pitched both long outings and shorter three-out appearances. After giving up four runs in three games between May 15-23, Berenguer was lights out over his next 31 games. He posted a 2.11 ERA, kept walks to a minimal, nearly got a K an inning, and saved 13 games. It gave him a full season mark of a 2.24 ERA and 17 saves. Senor Smoke looked destined to be in the mix for playoff innings before the worst luck. On an August off day after closing down his 17th game, Berenguer was wrestling with his children. Something went awry and he broke his right arm. It ended his season and less than two weeks later, the Braves sent Tony Castillo and Joe Roa to the Mets for Pena, who solidified the ninth inning once again.

The Braves would bring back Berenguer in 1992, but the luck was no longer on his side. He walked nearly as many as he struck out while serving up gopher balls entirely too often. He did pick up his 32nd career save and 18th as a Brave, but by July, the Braves wanted an improvement for their pen and grabbed southpaw Mark Davis from the Royals. Davis had been a big failure for Kansas City after winning the NL Cy Young with 44 saves as a Padre in 1989. Davis would continue to be awful in 14 games with the Braves after the trade and would not appear for the Braves in the playoffs that year.

As for Berenguer, he also struggled with his new team. His major league career was over so he continued to toil on. After a stint in Mexico, he returned to the Minneapolis area in 1994-95 with the independent-league Loons under the management of his former catcher, Greg Olson. He served as their closer, likely nailing down some of Kerry Ligtenberg's victories (Throwback Profile) before the latter would be traded for baseball equipment to the Braves. Berenguer finally retired after the 1997 season. He went back to Minnesota, where he had became a big figure, and settled into the married and working life.

More Recent Throwbacks
Charlie Morton (2008)
Freddy Garcia (2013)
John Thomson (2004-06)
...or view ALL of them.

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