The New York Mets filled their need for a starting pitcher on Monday by re-signing free agent starting pitcher Oliver Perez to a three-year, $36-million contract. Once New York target Derek Lowe came to terms with the Atlanta Braves (with a fourth year, for more in annual salary), it seemed inevitable that Perez would end up back in Queens. The Mets had also been linked to the injury-prone, though talented, Ben Sheets and southpaw Randy Wolf, but the relatively thin starting pitching market left the Mets with limited options to upgrade.
There was also a fairly weak demand for Perez, a Scott Boras client who entered free agency hoping for at least four years. Thus, a reunion at Citi Field seemed like a foregone conclusion. While he did not get his fourth year, though, the inconsistent left-hander has to be happy how this turned out, given how unkind the market has been to similar free agents this winter. In a difficult offseason for Boras, the signing brought some good news for the so-called super agent as well.
The real question, though, is whether or not this was a good decision for Omar Minaya and New York.
Giving this an objective look, it seems as if Minaya overpaid by upping the Mets’ initial offer of three years, $30-million. The veteran general manager stressed how valuable it was to avoid offering Perez a fourth year—after being burned in the dealings for Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner—but, while the risk is limited in terms of length, his newest acquisition has not been effective enough to merit that high of an annual salary.
Perez, who will be 27 during 2009, is entering what could be his prime. Plus, he throws from the left side (adding a necessary southpaw to the Mets’ starting corps) and has flashed signs of brilliance at times, seemingly rising to the occasion against strong competition. He also has shown the ability to miss bats, having struck out more than a batter per inning (1,027 Ks in 993.3 innings pitched) at the major league level. For these reasons, it was a preference of many within the organization to bring back Perez rather than adding Lowe or Sheets; those in the Perez camp also cited the chance for a potential breakout.
Regardless of those pros, though, it is clear that Minaya is banking on him finally putting it all together for good—because there are many cons associated with this decision as well. As dominant as Perez can look on occasion, the odds of putting the Jekyll and Hyde act in the rear view mirror to live up to his paycheck are fairly slim.
To put it bluntly, Perez is nothing all that special. He was fairly average again in 2008, posting a 4.21 ERA, 100 ERA+ (exactly league average when adjusting for park factors) and 4.68 fielding independent pitching mark in the inferior league. As has been the case for most of his career, his command issues (4.87 BB/9) were the biggest reason for his struggles. His control and command were more than terrible in ’08, as he led the circuit in walks by allowing a personal-high of 105 bases on balls.
Perez, to his credit, was much better in 2007, when he posted a 3.56 ERA, 120 ERA+ and 4.35 FIP and won 15 games. Many scouts were even confident that he had turned the corner. While giving up too many free passes via the walk proved to be a problem, he put up the best BB/9 % (4.02) since his breakout with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2004.
Perez reached his pinnacle of success in that ’04 campaign, posting career highs in ERA (2.98), ERA+ 145 and FIP (3.45) while producing solid rates of 10.97 K/9, 3.72 BB/9 and 1.01 HR/9 in 196.0 innings pitched over 30 starts. He failed to build off of that performance with the Pirates in a major regression during an injury-plagued 2005, however, as his ERA skyrocketed to 5.85 while he walked 6.12 hitters per nine innings. He missed nearly three months after breaking his toe in a self-inflicted injury, the exclamation point on a nightmare run; he hurt the toe after taking out his frustration by kicking a laundry cart in the clubhouse.
Perez was then dealt to New York (along with Roberto Hernandez) in exchange for outfielder Xavier Nady at the July 31 trade deadline in 2006. Before the trade, he produced a 6.55 ERA and 67 ERA+ in 15 starts for Pittsburgh, falling from staff ace to the bullpen, all the way to the minors. He was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk initially, but did provide some key outings as New York marched towards the playoffs; overall, he still finished with a 68 ERA+ for his new team.
Stuff-wise, Perez has a solid, but unspectacular repertoire, though the biggest with him is clearly an inability to find the strike zone enough. His average fastball velocity was fine at 91.2 (the exact same total as Johan Santana) in ’08, on a pitch that he threw 67.5 percent of the time. He flashed a slider 26.9 percent of the time, averaging 78.8 MPH with his out pitch; a fairly nice drop-off in velocity with his heater, allowing him to miss so many bats. He also mixed in a change-piece and curveball, though he has dropped his experiment with a cut fastball. The jump in velocity (up from 90.5 and 90.2 in ’05 and ’06, respectively) is a good sign, but command and consistency are the big ifs with him.
Essentially, Perez has been a model of inconsistency. This is evident by his fluctuating ERA+, FIP and Value Wins (courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs), attached to the dollar amount (in millions) that he deserved based on his pitching performance, numbers since 2004:
2004— ERA+: 145 FIP: 3.45 Value Wins: 4.5 ($14.1)
2005— ERA+: 72 FIP: 6.25 Value Wins: -1.0 ($-3.3)
2006— ERA+: 67 FIP: 5.61 Value Wins: 0 ($0.2)
2007— ERA+: 120 FIP: 4.35 Value Wins: 2.2 ($8.8)
2008— ERA+: 100 FIP: 4.68 Value Wins: 1.3 ($5.8)
Clearly, Minaya is hoping that Perez will end up performing closer to his ’04 levels, as he will have to in order to come close to actually earning his salary.
Perhaps most concerning, Minaya seemingly bid against himself. There were no other reported offers on the table. While Boras is a mastermind at establishing a false sense of demand for his clients and was wise to remain patient in this particular instance, the Mets might have been better off playing the waiting game before upping their offer as well. True, an unexpected, surprise suitor could have jumped out of nowhere to sign Perez, as was the case with the New York Yankees and Boras’ prized client, Mark Teixeira. New York was fearful of missing out on adding any impact pitcher with that in mind, it seems, as there are some question marks remaining in its pitching staff. Thus, this appears to be a desperate attempt to avoid missing out on the other targets, settling for only a modest upgrade at a premium price.
While Sheets is an injury risk and will cost the team that signs him a draft pick, his market value has plummeted. Perhaps Minaya would have been better adding him on in a short-term scenario. Even if he does not last a full season, when he is healthy enough to pitch, he is an elite front-line arm; according to this article by Eric Seidman, a fraction of an A-level player plus a replacement-level player filling in for them can often times add more value than a healthy B-level player.
Although Perez has youth on his side, even the fairly average Wolf has been nearly as effective during the above time span. He would have come at a cheaper price, perhaps providing a better option in a low-risk, one-year situation.
New York pitching coach Dan Warthen has reportedly been a nice influence on Perez, who was a bit better under his tutelage during the second half.
With the amount of money invested, Minaya can only hope that Warthen can work some magic, helping Perez put it together once and for all. As much credit as he deserved for his dealings at the Winter Meetings, though, it looks like he could wind up as another Boras victim.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.