The End of the Antonio Pérez Era

When Andre Ethier officially retired, that closed the book on the Antonio Perez era. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Andre Ethier was treated to a retirement ceremony at Dodger Stadium a few weeks ago. After his Dodgers lost the World Series in heartbreaking fashion, Ethier announced he would not return for 2018. Predictable as it might have been, retirement ceremonies are often bittersweet affairs. After 12 seasons in the red, white, and Dodger Blue, it was strange for the Dodgers faithful to imagine Chavez Ravine without Ethier. It was the end of an era. To be more precise, however, it was the end of two eras. The Andre Ethier Era, sure, but also the Antonio Pérez Era.

Baseball’s memory for imbalanced trades can be long and cruel. Most often, however, it is apathetic. For every Brock for Broglio there are a hundred deals of minimal consequence. Even deals with noteworthy headliners typically contain major league afterthoughts. Josh Beckett for Hanley Ramirez also had Jesús Delgado and Harvey García. Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez included Joaquín Árias. And, of course, Brock for Broglio was really Brock, Spring, and Toth for Broglio, Clemens, and Shantz. The names only mentioned in passing become baseball’s wallflowers, decorations frozen in time for a more talented player’s career.

Even among the wallflowers, however, there occasionally emerges a remarkable journey. Perhaps the most exceptional of all is the odyssey of Antonio Pérez. Despite a journeyman’s career at the major league level, there may not be a single player in history who can boast the transactional adjacency to fame and production Pérez can. Pérez was traded four times – once for a Hall of Famer, again with a World Series winning coach, a third time for a utility man, and finally for the 12-year veteran who just celebrated his retirement amidst a sea of blue. A few weeks ago, Chris Davies wrote about Trade Threads, a phenomenon linking players and organizations across decades. While Pérez’s personal thread is a mere four trades long, it is one of the most narratively rich and statistically potent threads in baseball history.

Pérez signed as an international amateur out of the Dominican Republic town of Baní with the Cincinnati Reds in 1998. His hit tool was decent, but for a versatile defensive infielder, Pérez showed impressive power and plate discipline, particularly at a young age. That mixture of power, speed, and defense earned him a spot as Baseball America’s eighth-ranked prospect in the Reds organization prior to the 2000 season. While he was outshone by his fellow Banílejo, Miguel Tejada, Pérez seemingly had a bright enough future ahead of him. That potential was enough to draw the eye of Mariners general manager Pat Gillick, who found himself in a bind with another superstar barely a year after the unceremonious departure of Randy Johnson.

The Deal to Replace a Legend

February 10, 2000: Reds trade INF Antonio Pérez, OF Mike Cameron, RHP Brett Tomko, and RHP Jake Meyer to Mariners for OF Ken Griffey Jr.

Cumulative fWAR involved in trade: 144.7

Ken Griffey Jr. wanted to play in his hometown. Unlike nearly every baseball player, Griffey had both the popularity and leverage to make his dream come true. Using his 10/5 rights, the 30-year-old Junior forced the hand of Gillick’s front office. In exchange for the most talented player of the past decade, the Reds sent Cameron, Tomko, Meyer and Pérez to Seattle on February 10, 2000. It would be the first instance of Pérez as a footnote, albeit justifiably given his immortal company.

Pérez had been a concession by Seattle, who pushed hard for infield prospect Pokey Reese until the end. The inclusion of a major-league ready Mike Cameron spelled the end of the Mariners’ pursuit of Angels center fielder Jim Edmonds, but to the astonishment of many, the Mariners’ best days were ahead of them.

Cameron’s production over the next four years would easily outpace Griffey’s. Cammy’s 18.4 bWAR more than doubled the 8.0 bWAR mustered by an injury-racked Junior. Despite just one All-Star Game appearance and never playing for any his eight major league teams for more than four seasons, Cameron would rack up 46.7 WAR over his 17-year career. Asked to fill the shoes of an all-time great, Cammy unexpectedly established his own legend.

The same could not be said for the other actors in the trade. Division-II pitching legend  Tomko failed to recapture the brilliance of his rookie season but parlayed his versatility into a 14-year career as a swingman. He also possesses one of baseball’s best Wikipedia entries clearly written by the player or a family member. Jake Meyer never cracked the big leagues, drifting off toward the fringes of these stories like so many other bullpen throw-ins before him. Pérez, however, was trending up.

The 20-year-old Dominican slotted in as the sixth-ranked prospect in the Mariners system and responded with the best offensive season of his career. While High-A Lancaster has always had a reputation as a launching pad, his 17 homers and .276/.376/.527 line in 474 plate appearances helped him rocket up prospect lists everywhere. By the winter of 2001, Pérez was BA’s 16th overall prospect and one of five Top-100 prospects for the Mariners, trailing only Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Anderson, aka “The Little Unit.”

It would be the zenith of Pérez’s prospect hype, but he’d only cleared the first hill of his eventual journey.

The Final Falling Out

October 28, 2002: Mariners trade INF Antono Pérez & manager Lou Piniella to Devil Rays for OF Randy Winn

Cumulative fWAR involved in trade: 28.1 (or 40.4 including Piniella as a player)

The Worcester Red Sox and the Problem of History
As the Red Sox prepare to move an affiliate, Pawtucket stands to lose more than just baseball.

The role of the manager was once one of centralized authority. As the game has grown in complexity, authority has shifted to front offices. But at the turn of the 21st century, the Tampa Bay Rays believed what they needed was a firm hand at the managerial wheel. On October 28, 2002, they traded their best player for one.

Lou Piniella was on the outs in Seattle following a power struggle with Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln. Despite a historically successful 2001 season and a 93-win 2002, the restlessness over perceived slights and what Piniella saw as organizational reticence to improve the big league roster boiled over into a trade request. For Lincoln and his GM Pat Gillick, it was a chance to upgrade at a position of need without digging into the reserve of injured pitching prospects who had hamstrung potential deadline buys in 2002. Unfortunately for Antonio Pérez, pitchers weren’t the only ones getting injured.

Dropped to 52nd in BA’s Top 100 after missing nearly the entire 2001 season with injury, Pérez retained the luster of a future starter entering 2002. Sadly, nagging injuries relegated Antonio to just 78 total games between Rookie Ball and Double-A San Antonio, and his OPS dropped over .200 points from his stellar Lancaster campaign just two years prior. Mariners vice president and chief of scouting Roger Jongewaard was clear in his praise of Pérez, one of the few instances of Pérez receiving a public distinction in his career:

“Antonio is a premium, ultra-fast runner,” Jongewaard said. “He’s just a talent. But he has been injured a lot. He still has things to learn, but he’s a premium prospect.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer referred to Pérez as an “oft-injured” prospect, and that unfortunate proclivity would dog him for the rest of his career. Randy Winn would linger in the majors beyond Pérez, weaving a 13-year major league career that narrowly outlasted Piniella’s emotional mid-season retirement in August of the 2010 season. It would be Tampa where Pérez earned his major league debut. At 23, he ran a .248/.345/.360 line in his first 147 PAs for the Rays with a 92 wRC+ and a healthy dose of defensive work all over the infield. The injuries that slowed his development seemingly had a lasting impact, and Pérez was consistently featured at second base, before eventually shifting to third, where he would spend most of his remaining career.

The Forgettable Flip

April 3, 2004: Rays trade INF Antonio Pérez to Dodgers for UTIL Jason Romano

Cumulative bWAR involved in trade: -0.8

If you’re familiar with the traditional narrative story chart, there is often a stretch represented on the diagram where the narrative slows slightly following a burst of rising action. That is the Jason Romano trade component of this historical journey. Romano never managed to solve major league pitching and his career 36 wRC+ was too much (or too little) to overcome.

Meanwhile, Pérez seemed to finally be overcoming his battles with health, posting a Pacific Coast League-aided .296/.379/.511 line with 24 home runs for the Las Vegas 51s in 476 PAs while blocked by Jeff Kent at the big league level. Pérez exceeded rookie limits in his first season of 2003, but the 25-year-old retained some intrigue as a possible trade target, as Baseball Prospectus outlined in its Annual in 2005:

Not all such gambles work out so well, but getting a one-time top prospect for a player as forgettable as Jason Romano is the kind of move befitting a sharp organization like the Dodgers and a dull one like the Devil Rays. Perez consolidated his tools into a solid season at Triple-A, hitting for power and average while hiking his walk rate dramatically. Of course it’s Vegas, so you take the grain of salt, throw it over your shoulder, and pray for the straight flush. Jeff Kent’s blocking his path to a starting job, but the Dodgers now have a semi-revived prospect they can use off the bench while fishing for another deal like the rumored Hudson-Jackson/Perez off-season swap that never panned out.”

Those rumors swirled throughout 2004, with A’s ace Tim Hudson among those dangled in front of the Dodgers for a potential Edwin Jackson and Antonio Pérez package, but it all came to naught. Hudson became a Brave instead, and Pérez would have to wait until December of 2005 before a different deal sent him packing one final time.

The Fresh Start and the Franchise Player

December 13, 2005: Dodgers trade INF Antonio Pérez and OF Milton Bradley to Athletics for OF Andre Ethier

Cumulative fWAR involved in trade: 43.6

The final deal came, once again, in the offseason. Pérez was a complementary piece at this point; at age 25 he seemed fully realized. A .297/.360/.398 line and a wRC+ of 104 from a player taking turns at second, short and third for a career-high 287 PAs was a boost for the Dodgers. It also helped seal the deal to send him and Milton Bradley to the Athletics in exchange for Andre Ethier.

Bradley had already developed a reputation as a contentious teammate, having tussled with fans and former manager Eric Wedge. After a year in Los Angeles, Bradley and Kent were at loggerheads over what Bradley described as both a lack of leadership and an inability to interact with the team’s African-American players. Bradley’s laundry list of off-field transgressions, culminating with numerous charges of domestic violence and spousal abuse, overshadow any on-field excitement he provided in his 12-year career.

Meanwhile, for the Dodgers, Ethier made an immediate impact. Beginning with a 2.2 fWAR rookie season, Ethier’s consistency helped propel the Dodgers to playoff appearances over a decade apart. Despite a low-ceiling profile, Ethier was almost precisely a league-average player over his 12 seasons in Los Angeles. In those 1,417 games from 2006-2017, Ethier accrued a 123 wRC+, 159 homers, and a team-leading 5,361 PAs. When the Dodgers had their best shot at a World Series title in decades, despite his having played just 22 games prior to the postseason, they called on Ethier in the clutch in and he delivered. At his retirement, twice-former teammate Matt Kemp cycled through the clichés:

“We had some great times,” Kemp said. “He’s a great dude. It just kind of reminds you of all the things you went through when you were younger and the grind we went through together. So it’s a sad day.”

Ethier, Kemp, Bradley, Winn, Cameron, Griffey – these are the exceptions, not the rule. For most players, the grind is not a trite metaphor. It’s an inescapable pursuer that is just moments away from catching the hem of your pants and dragging you down, crumbling down into nothing but a dusty footnote. It was not long before that grind came for Antonio Pérez.

Whatever corner Pérez had supposedly been turned in 2005 was rerouted in 2006. Pérez began the season 0-for-25 and finished it a wretched .105/.185/.204 in 109 PAs. At 26 years of age, on September 28, 2006, Pérez played his final major league game. He attempted to revive his career in his native Dominican Republic as a member of the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter Leagues, first in the winter of 06-07, then in 08-09, and finally, resignedly, in 09-10.

The End of the Era

With the generous aid of Seattle Times Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish, I was able to ask a question of the few active players to have been teammates with Pérez, whose current whereabouts were beyond my tracking abilities. Nelson Cruz pondered the decade-old memory test before answering:

Yeah, yeah I remember him. He was a good hitter. I think he battled a lot of injuries from what I remember… He was a very quiet guy. I don’t remember much about him. He had bad luck. He got hit in the face in the Dominican by a pitch and when he finally came back he got hit on the hand.

At this point, Cruz stepped back and stated “I think his batting stance was like this,” and mimicked an open stance with his imaginary bat held aloft pointing nearly straight back at the pitcher a la Julio Franco. Oh to one day “not remember much” the way Nelson Cruz does. Unfortunately, Nelson’s evaluation of Pérez’s final result is spot on. Unable to overcome injuries, the now 38-year-old Pérez saw his playing career conclude in the Dominican winter.

Every career ends. It is no sadder than the conclusion of any other chapter of a person’s life, and for Pérez it was a career touched by greatness at almost every stage, even if its proximity is mere serendipity. All told, the manager and players Antonio Pérez were traded for and with accumulated 227.9 fWAR. Whether the numbers or the sheer improbability strike you, one thing is certain. It’s the end of an era.


John Trupin is the Deputy Managing Editor for Lookout Landing, where he writes baseball analysis, history, and the like. He has had the tune to "99 Luftballoons" stuck in his head intermittently ever since he wrote about a 25-man roster composed entirely of Dan Vogelbach clones.

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3 Comments on "The End of the Antonio Pérez Era"

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Josh
Member
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Josh

I loved this piece – thank you! The rich, deep history of the game makes for some nice Friday morning reading. And while the end of a career is, as you say, no more sad than any other transition in life, this one still got me a little.

On an unrelated note, I wonder how many Fangraphs trolls will show up here to berate the author for writing about connections between people instead of StatBall? You know, they way trolls do when there’s a cross-posted article like this one, written by a woman.

hbeltre
Member

I agree with you Josh. A well written touching piece, that help us to enjoy that human side of this game we love so much. Great track of Antonio journey in DR-Winter league! Thanks for all this John.