There are a lot of teams who fancy themselves contenders and are worried about their bullpens. The Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim come to mind immediately. At some point this year one of these teams will overreact to a series of blown saves and be willing to overpay for an established, reliable closer. And one of the first calls these teams make will be to Chris Antonetti.
This is understandable. The Indians are still a small-market team, Perez makes over $7 million a year, and he is nearing the end of his team control. In addition, the Tribe has great depth in the bullpen. They could easily slide Vinnie Pestano into the closer role or, if they wanted to keep everyone in their customary roles, they could bring Matt Capps up from Columbus once he builds up his arm strength.
The question is, how should Antonetti respond to these inquiries?
No doubt, it will depend a great deal on how the season goes. But I would propose that it shouldn’t, at least not entirely. If the Indians make Perez available he will likely be the best relief pitcher on the market between now and the next offseason. If the Indians are indeed confident that Pestano or Capps can handle the closer’s role, this is a classic situation of Perez being worth more to other teams than he is to the Tribe. That is when teams can maximize their return, so it would be foolish to consider Perez untradeable, regardless of how the season turns out. Under the right circumstances, a trade of a premier closer such as Perez can net a team a return in immediate help or prospects that can far outweigh the contribution he makes to the final outcome of the season.
There are a couple of caveats. While it is trendy to dismiss the importance of closers because statistically they are only worth a couple of wins a year, any Indians fan who lived through the Joe Borowski era knows how a shaky closer can sabotage a season, so the Indians need to be confident about Vinnie Pestano before they make a move with Perez. It is highly likely, however, that the Tribe would miss Pestano in the eighth more than they would miss Perez in the ninth. There are several viable options to fill that spot, most likely Joe Smith, but none of them have done it before. It would be a risk, but it is the kind of risk a small-market team should take if the return for Perez is high enough.
The other caveat is that you shouldn’t play yourself into a position where you have to make a trade. The Pirates made a decision to trade their closer, Joel Hanrahan, during the offseason and lost all their leverage because other teams felt like the Pirates had already made their decision. If the Indians put Perez out there and don’t like the offers, they can keep him and try again in the offseason or even early next year. The important thing in such a situation is to put the player on the market without giving the impression publicly that you intend to trade him no matter what. Once it becomes obvious that a team has made up its mind to trade a guy, the offers seem to diminish greatly.
The Indians appeared to do a good job of this over the past offseason with Asdrubal Cabrera. It seemed like he would have been traded if there had been an offer that knocked the front office’s socks off, but that apparently never came, and the Indians can now keep him until such an offer comes along or until Francisco Lindor is ready for the majors, whichever comes first. I hope they take the same approach with Perez.
The bottom line is that a small-market team needs to have depth everywhere, but it cannot afford to have excess depth or too many payroll dollars in any one area. The Indians have both of those situations in the bullpen. They have a choice between Chris Perez closing and good pitchers like Nick Hagadone wasting away at Columbus where he has nothing left to prove (assuming Hagadone ends up returning to Columbus when the Indians revert back to a seven-man ‘pen), or they can have Pestano closing, Hagadone pitching in low-stress situations until he proves he is capable of more, and a couple of good prospects to fill the dearth in the outfield or at catcher who would be ready to help the Indians for much longer than Perez would likely be around.
If Chris Antonetti can create such a scenario, it seems like the wise thing to do.