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Oliver Perez, Somehow A Potential Bargain

Oliver Perez has had a pretty fascinating career path, and while I hardly need to bring you through his entire history, it’d be remiss to start an article about him without at least touching on his backstory briefly. Drafted by the Padres, he was shipped to Pittsburgh in the Brian Giles trade, where he put up one shining age-22 season — 4.4 WAR, 239 strikeouts in 2004 — before posting an ERA north of 5.00 in four of the next six seasons.  Most of that time was spent with the Mets, where he was so awful (other than a solid 2007) that they cut him just before camp ended in 2011, despite still owing him $12 million for the season. Perez spent some time in the minors for Washington that year, never appearing in the bigs, and considering how long it had been since that wonderful 2004, it wasn’t hard to think of his career as being over.

Except, it wasn’t. Perez resurfaced as a reliever in Seattle in 2012 and was good enough that it shocked our resident Mariners fans into writing posts titled “Oliver Perez Is Good Now. Seriously.” (Cameron, 2012) and “Oliver Perez. Pitcher You Want.(Sullivan, 2013). His reputation was so terrible that the mere fact that he was in the bigs and adding any kind of value was seen as a jaw-dropping event.

Now Perez is a free agent, and two weeks before camp starts, the silence around him has been deafening. If you look at his player tag on MLB Trade Rumors, there hasn’t been a single media mention of him since December 4, when Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore tweeted that the Nationals, Mariners, and Padres all “remain in on him.” Prior to that, it was a November 15 mention, also about the Nats. And… that’s it. In over three months, two mere mentions.

Maybe that’s not so surprising, because he’s a non-closing lefty reliever in a market where Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew and so on still exist, and just because MLBTR hasn’t picked up on any further news, it doesn’t mean that no conversations have been had.

Still, the complete lack of public noise around Perez is notable, because he compares pretty favorably to this winter’s two big lefty relief free agents, Boone Logan ($16.5m over three years) and J.P. Howell ($11.25m over two years, with a vesting clause that could push it to $17.25m):

2012-13 IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
Howell 112.1 7.69 3.61 0.72 2.56 3.74 0.3
Logan 94.1 11.26 3.91 1.24 3.53 3.73 0.8
Perez 82.2 10.67 3.92 0.76 3.13 3.13 1.3

Now, that’s leaving out some obvious qualifiers. Logan (29) and Howell (31) are each slightly younger than Perez (32), and tougher on lefties, and Perez had a really difficult second half, maintaining his strikeout rate but suffering through control problems and a .444 BABIP. (Which is basically a case study for “losing team going nowhere should have traded non-elite reliever with history of inconsistency when they had the chance.”) That said, no one’s suggesting that Perez should be getting a large multi-year deal like Howell and Logan did. At this point, I’m wondering if he’s even going to get a major league deal, or if someone is going to end up with a relative steal of a minor league invite.

You can say it’s a steal, because over the last two years, Perez’ contact rate has been within a percentage point of Max Scherzer, Glen Perkins, and Jesse Crain. His swinging-strike percentage is basically identical to Joe Nathan and better than that of Michael Wacha or Clayton Kershaw. His first-pitch strike percentage is the same as Hisashi Iwakuma, Lance Lynn, and Trevor Rosenthal. None of those stats alone make for a successful pitcher, as I should hardly need to explain by the mere fact that Kershaw’s  name is included here, but they do make for a guy who has been doing something right on the mound, especially notable since for so many years he was doing nothing right on the mound.

Really, with Logan and Howell off the board and lesser pitchers like Jose Mijares already locked up, the market for remaining lefty relievers is all but finished. There’s Mike Gonzalez, who is 36 and coming off the worst year of his career, or Rich Hill, who is 34, coming off a 6.28 ERA, and with all of 70.1 innings in the last four seasons. In the meantime, those reported suitors have gone in other directions.  The Nationals traded for Jerry Blevins and may yet find a way to push Ross Detwiler into the bullpen. The Mariners already have Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge, and signed Joe Beimel to a minor league deal. The Padres  just traded for Alex Torres after previously adding Patrick Schuster as a Rule 5 pick, and may have either Eric Stults or Cory Luebke in the bullpen if either doesn’t make the rotation.

That doesn’t mean other teams couldn’t be interested that we don’t know about, but it does mean that the teams reportedly sniffing around him may have moved on. You get it, really. You look at Perez’ past, and his disappointing second half, and the fact that his “rebirth” is really all of about 80 innings of baseball. But he’s also a lefty, a not particularly old one, and someone who appears to have found himself in the bullpen. I can’t say with a straight face that I’d rather him over Logan in 2014 if all conditions were equal. That said, conditions aren’t equal, and someone will end up with Perez for something like $15 million less than Colorado is paying Logan. For approximately 10 percent of the cost or less, Perez seems like he could approximate a sizable portion of Logan’s value. That means it’s been a surprisingly quiet winter for Ollie… too quiet.