With the end of the 2012 season only a week away and an offseason of change quickly approaching, it won’t be long before every pundit and so-called expert (ourselves included) begins dissecting the Indians’ roster and wagering guesses on who stays and who goes heading into 2013. With how this season has played out you could make an argument that any number of players need to be kicked to the curb but one stands out among the rest. That would be embattled closer Chris Perez.
It’s a bit mind boggling that we would be having a discussion regarding Perez’s future with the organization. After all, he has been by far the Tribe’s most consistent performer all year, was an All-Star for the second time in as many seasons, and has established himself as one of the premier closers in the game. Why, then, would anyone want him gone?
Well, the cold hard truth in all of this is the fact that Perez has done himself absolutely no favors this season with his comments to the media on any number of topics, from his rants about the attendance figures at the start the season to his bemoaning the cheapness of ownership a few weeks ago. While the comments did hold some merit (I mean, how could you not agree with most of what he said?) they were wildly inappropriate. Now he’s telling reporters that “It will be a fun last couple of days of the season when I’m allowed to talk again.”
Oh boy. Clear the decks. Batten down the hatches. Sound the alarms. Mount Perez is getting ready to erupt again.
Knowing that and his propensity to go off on anyone and everyone, the question has to be asked: Have we seen the last of Chris Perez as a Cleveland Indian?
It’s an interesting argument that has two legitimately solid sides you can choose from. As I’ve said, Perez is one of the best closers in the game today and when paired with setup man extraordinaire Vinnie Pestano, he gives the Tribe a legitimate advantage when they’re playing from ahead. He was until recently on pace to lead the AL in saves, having converted nearly all of them up until the Indians went into nuclear meltdown mode.
But above all else, Chris Perez genuinely gives a crap. His demeanor on the field and even his outlandish comments say as much. I like Chris Perez. I like Chris Perez a lot, actually. He’s one of the few players on this team who has a personality and charisma that the organization can actually market to the fans both in Cleveland and around the league. If I were building a winner, I would want Chris Perez on my team.
And that’s the problem. Are the Indians building a winner for 2013? After the epic disaster 2012 has been and the apparent need to reboot, rebuild, or blow up the majority of the roster, how much value does Perez have to the Indians moving forward? That’s the real question that needs to be answered.
We saw what he could do for this team when they were in contention and competing on a nightly basis. Prior to the All-Star break, Perez converted 24 out of 26 save opportunities, but since then he has recorded just 13 saves in 15 chances. That’s the problem with closers in general. When things are going well, they seem like one of the most important positions on the team. When things are going poorly, they’re an afterthought.
For Perez, the second half has wasted of his talents and diminished his on the field value for the Indians. Without as many save opportunities, he’s appeared in fewer games and his inability to perform to his usual standard in non-save situations even further diminishes it. With the Indians playing the way they are, Perez is essentially a guy taking airplane rides and watching games from one heck of a premium seat (the kind you can’t find on StubHub for 75% above market price).
That’s not Perez’s fault, that’s just the nature of the closer role. By all accounts it’s not a position that holds a remarkable amount of value, unless of course you have a freak of nature closing for you, i.e. Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel. In fact, most of its value stems from folklore and a twisted logic that it’s essential to have a closer to win anything. You can blame Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn andMariano Rivera’s epic Metallica-themed entrance for that. In reality, that’s not true at all. Just look at this year’s fWAR leaders for relievers. Other than Chapman and Kimbrel, there isn’t much separation among the rest and there are just as many ordinary relievers as closers on this list.
Perez’s fWAR this season is 1.1, a career high for him. But if Perez is so valuable to the cause, why is his lower than Vinnie Pestano’s 1.3 fWAR? How is it possible that the guy setting up the guy closing the games has more value? Honestly, it’s because Pestano and other late inning relievers do more to help their teams win on a nightly basis than Perez or any other closer.
Closers typically come into the game for one inning and with no one on base. Meanwhile, other relievers are coming in to high-pressure situations with multiple runners on base and having to get out of a jam they didn’t create and throw multiple innings, sometimes even against a team’s best hitter. That’s partly why there was such a debate within the Reds about how to best utilize Aroldis Chapman this season. He had excelled in the 7th and 8th innings and many felt using him to close would, in essence, be limiting his impact on the outcomes of games. Again, which has more value?
Despite what all the numbers tell us, and what we can gather from our own logic, teams still place an inordinate amount of importance on the closer role. Just look at the contracts handed out each and every offseason by teams desperate to fill the role with a big name even though half of the closers by year’s end are usually midseason revelations that come out of nowhere thanks in large part to stress related injuries. The mechanics of coming in for one inning and throwing as hard as humanly possible three days in a row tends to wear heavily on the human arm. This year alone it seemed as if every other day a closer was headed to the DL with a season ending injury.
Take the Oakland A’s, for instance. They traded away Andrew Bailey and in return received prospects and Josh Reddick, who has gone on to hit .242/.306/.456 with 29 home runs, 79 RBI, and 3.8 fWAR while filling the A’s No. 3 hole for most of the season. Meanwhile, Bailey has thrown only 14 innings thanks to injuries while Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour have made a formidable closing committee for the A’s.
That, my friends, is why Chris Perez is so valuable to the Indians moving forward. With his resume, he can generate a substantial return in a trade, possibly even more than what the A’s received for Bailey. Why not trade away a player who generated only about a win above replacement while appearing for one inning every few days for multiple pieces who could play every day while producing significantly more value?
The Indians also have the added benefit of two potential closer candidates already on the roster moving forward. Pestano has done an excellent job filling in for Perez on occasion the past two seasons and many believe he’s pegged as the closer of the future. There’s also the option of Nick Hagadone, the hard-throwing lefty prospect who has shown potential in his few major league call-ups. Given that the Indians may be entering in another rebuilding cycle, either player could grow into the role and be ready once the window of championship opportunity reopens.
That’s why it seems unlikely that Perez will be an Indian come 2013. For a team looking to rebuild its farm system, Perez should be shopped around for the best possible package. Add in his outlandish statements, which not only rubbed the front office and ownership the wrong way but also point to him not wanting to be here anymore, and it seems reasonable to expect Perez to have a new home in 2013. It will suck to lose a player with Perez’s charisma and marketability, but the potential rewards are too great to overlook.
So are Chris Perez’s days as a Cleveland Indian numbered? It seems inevitable. Cleveland has an incredibly valuable trade chip who could bring back a substantial return. It won’t be a popular move, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a smart one. If the Indians are truly committed to doing what they’ve promised for so long—building a winner—then trading Perez should be at the top of the priority list this winter.