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Cards Closer Candidate: Chris Perez

The bullpen in St. Louis is in a state of transition. After handing the ball to Jason Isringhausen in high-leverage situations since 2002, the Red Birds will now have to cobble together another closer. Izzy (now a free agent) battled injuries (knee, hand, elbow) and was generally ineffective, posting a 4.87 FIP and a -2.97 WPA in 2008. Overall, St. Louis’ relief corps turned in a season to forget, finishing 25th in the majors in FIP and 22nd in WPA.

Luckily, hope is on the horizon in the form of a big-bodied, hard-throwing righty: Chris Perez. A 2006 supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Miami, Perez made quick work of the minor leagues in ascending from A-ball to the big leagues within a two-year period. Listed at 6-4, 225 pounds (but appearing to weigh considerably more than that), Perez used his searing upper-90’s fastball and occasionally wicked slider to rack up 147 strikeouts in 109 career minor league innings (12.1 K/9). The former Hurricane surrendered just 61 hits along the way.

While Perez has shown the ability to miss bats aplenty, he has also had his fair share of trouble in finding the strike zone. The 23 year-old issued 72 walks in the minors, a whopping 5.94 per nine innings. Suffice it to say, he’s going to need to harness his control in order to become a guy entrusted in the late innings, rather than the next Kyle Farnsworth (although Farnsy enjoys unfathomable job security at the moment).

When Perez reached St. Louis in mid-May, he continued to tantalize with his K rates and high-octane stuff while also frustrating with his command hiccups. On the positive side, Perez highlighted his closer-worthy talent, pumping in fastballs at an average of 95.2 MPH (used 75% of the time) and complementing the heater with an 85.1 MPH slider (utilized nearly a quarter of the time). That dastardly combo led to plenty of swings and misses, as Perez punched out 9.07 batters per nine innings in 41.2 frames. Control, however, continued to elude the portly right-hander: he allowed 4.75 BB/9, which led to a 4.33 FIP.

At the moment, the Cardinals’ official depth-chart lists Perez as the club’s closer. Whether he holds that distinction when the games start remains to be seen. In an interview with Matthew Leach of MLB.com, Cards skipper Tony La Russa appeared non-committal when asked about his high-leverage horses for the ’09 season:

“You still want to improve your bullpen,” La Russa said. “We still want to try. I know we talked about it. The optimum thing is not to ask Chris or Jason to close in ’09. Let them grow into the role when they’re ready to take it. So who else is out there?”

That interview did take place a month ago, but it serves to show that while St. Louis might admire Perez’s long-term upside, the team is not wedded to the idea of handing over 9th-inning duties to him from day one in 2009. In the publication’s 2009 organizational rankings, Baseball America summed up Perez’s situation perfectly: “Command and inexperience continue to block Perez from being dubbed St. Louis’ closer…he’ll ascend to the ninth once he improves his grip on his repertoire.”

With St. Louis’ late-game ‘pen anything but settled, Perez is certainly someone to watch closely. His strengths (missing bats, plus velocity and a sometimes-nasty slider) peg him as a candidate for important innings, but his progress in harnessing his control and command will dictate just how valuable he becomes. Fantasy owners might just want to follow La Russa’s line of thinking: don’t rush out and anoint Perez just yet, but keep an eye on him with the idea that he could play a larger role down the line.