There’s a lot the Indians have done this off-season that has thrilled me as a fan, especially given the team’s recent struggles and turmoil. The Mark Reynolds signing was a low-risk-high-reward-type signing, the team swapped a year of control of Shin-Soo Choo for Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs, and while they probably overpaid for Nick Swisher he’s still a good bet to provide value over the course of his contract. I’m very pleased with the moves so far, as they were much-needed and could breathe life into this team.
But there’s one lingering roster issue remaining, one I’m really curious as to why it hasn’t been resolved yet: Why is Chris Perez still on this team?
Here’s my usual disclaimer: I am a fan of Perez, and I do enjoy rooting for him, but he is scheduled to make a ridiculous amount of money for a reliever in arbitration this off-season (estimates range from $7-9 million for one year) and given his behavior last season, he’s been rumored to be out the door since before the off-season began. But here we are, two weeks into January, and Perez is still in the back of that bullpen. I can guess the reason why: the Indians are trying to get maximum value for Perez, and if they can’t get that they feel he’s still valuable to the club.
And this is where I tell you that the Indians are wrong. Dead wrong, actually. To explain why, let’s look through some common myths about closers and relief pitchers and why they are really just myths.
- Myth #1: All teams need a closer
All teams don’t need a closer. They can have a guy they use most of the time in the ninth inning, but paying a guy a ton of money for three outs is extremely foolish in baseball nowadays. Why is this? Well, for better or (more likely) for worse, closers are judged by how many saves they get. The save itself is kind of a goofy stat, as there are a few different ways to acquire a save, but the most common is recording the final out(s) in a game for a team leading by less than three runs. It doesn’t matter if that closer gave up two runs, as long as the team is still winning by the end of it, he is credited with a save.
Teams that win more will usually get more save opportunities, because though it is possible for a pitcher to record a save in a losing effort, it doesn’t happen very often with how managers use modern bullpens. Take a look at this table for AL save leaders in 2012. You can pretty much ignore everyone after the second segment, as those are guys just listed for the random save that will occur due to injuries, fatigue, or ineffectiveness. If you click on each player you’ll find the 2012 salaries for closers can jump all over the place, but two things are pretty clear: you don’t have to pay a ton of money to get a good one and just cause a closer is good one year is no guarantee he will be effective the next year.
Relievers are pretty volatile in nature, so paying a lot of money to one or signing one to a long-term deal is usually not a smart investment, considering the number of innings a closer will actually pitch (MLB saves leader Jim Johnson of Baltimore pitched fewer than 69 innings last season; Baltimore pitchers totaled 1,483 IP in 2012, which was the most in the majors) and the other alternatives readily available to Major League teams. Brian Fuentes was paid $5 million to close for Oakland last year. That didn’t work out too well. If you don’t expect your team to contend, usually a closer is just going to sit in the bullpen.
- Myth #2: Contending teams need a proven closer
Contending teams don’t need a proven closer, because the shelf life of closers is usually pretty short. Sure, you can rattle off names like Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner as guys with long closer track records, but they’re exceptions, not the norm.
Take a look at the list of saves leaders again, and only two guys on the five AL playoff teams could really be considered “proven closers”: Joe Nathan of Texas, who was effective for the first time since he was injuried at the start of 2010 (when he was Minnesota’s closer) and Jose Valverde of Detroit (and one can make the argument that the Tigers won in spite of Valverde, who was removed as the closer during the playoffs). Valverde is searching for a new team this offseason as Detroit didn’t re-sign him. In the NL, the San Fransisco Giants did have one of those proven closers. Unfortunately, he was hurt almost the entire season, and they had to use a few relievers in the role throughout the season. That didn’t turn out too badly for them.
- Myth #3: The closer is the team’s best reliever
Sometimes a closer is also his team’s relief ace, but even if Joe Borowski doesn’t sway you, consider last year’s bullpen. Vinnie Pestano pitched 70 innings and was worth a 2.1 rWAR. Perez pitched in 57 innings, for 0.5 WAR. Admittedly, WAR isn’t the best stat to use with relievers, but pretty much any metric you could use (except, you know, those saves) shows Pestano was a better pitcher in 2012 than Perez. Pestano has closed for Perez in stretches where Perez has been tired or injured, so it’s not like he couldn’t handle the role.
- Myth #4: Contending teams will give up a lot of value to acquire a proven closer
This one isn’t as easy to disprove, as it depends a lot on the pitcher, and his salary. But Joel Hanrahan‘s numbers are pretty similar to Perez’s, and Hanrahan was traded for four players at the end of December, and none of them were anything special. In fact, Pittsburgh had to throw in another player, Brock Holt, to complete the deal. Holt projects as a utility player, but still, the Pirates didn’t receive much for their closer.
So why would the Indians think they could do better?
- Myth #5: The Indians need to get maximum value for Perez
I suppose there’s always a chance one of those teams dead-set on contending freaks out in spring training and offers the moon for a guy like Perez, who is a very capable reliever and good in that ninth inning. Maybe the Giants decide to go in another direction, and offer a guy like Brandon Belt for Perez. Maybe Detroit panics, and tries to structure a deal for Perez that would have Rick Porcello going back to Cleveland. Either of those would be terrific returns on Perez.
The problem with the Indians is that Perez is scheduled to make a lot of money in 2013, and even if the final figure comes out on the low end of that estimate, like $7 million, that’s still an absurd amount of money to pay to a guy that will pitch in a very small percentage of the team’s innings. It ties up the team’s resources to do other things, like finding a DH. And then there’s always the worst-case scenario, which isn’t even Perez being hurt for the entire season—the worst case scenario is Perez becomes ineffective and (due to his large salary) untradeable, leaving the team on the hook for the entire season. Think the Grady Sizemore deal hampered the Indians last season? Perez will make more than Sizemore did. It’s an extreme risk to hang on to Perez and just hope the perfect deal lands in the team’s lap.
Look, the Indians have made some moves this off-season that appear to be pretty shrewd, and I can forgive them for not wanting to get too trigger-happy and push their luck. But Perez is a luxury this team shouldn’t be affording. Even if this team is a contender (which, even for an eternal optimist like me, is a bit of a stretch unless everything goes right), the team already has a better reliever in Pestano to take Perez’s place.
At this point, the Indians are just being greedy with what they can get for Perez. Flip him for whatever you can get – if it’s someone like Porcello with upside, sweet, if it’s a low-level prospect, well, you milked Perez for all you could while he was cheap. But a small-market team like the Indians can’t fall in love with their relievers unless they want a potentially huge financial burden in the back-end of their bullpen.