Perez trying to get back to Majors as reliever
Veteran lefty in camp with Mariners on Minor League deal
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Things didn't end well for Oliver Perez last year with the Mets, the veteran left-hander becoming a symbol of that franchise's struggles for New York fans before being released with $12 million remaining on his contract.
But Perez, 30, still loved baseball. He still wanted to prove he could pitch. So Perez finds himself in Mariners camp this spring, reinventing himself as a lefty reliever on a Minor League deal.
While the Mariners have a handful of southpaw bullpen candidates on their 40-man roster -- including George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo, Charlie Furbush, Mauricio Robles and Cesar Jimenez -- Perez has gone about proving he might still have some baseball left in him.
The fastball that had lost life in recent years began coming back during a season spent in Double-A with the Nationals last year and a strong winter ball showing in his native Mexico. Along with it came a player who'd started two games in the National League Championship Series for the Mets in 2006 -- including a Game 4 victory over the Cardinals -- and was a 15-game winner in '07.
The Mets released him after he went 0-5 with a 6.80 ERA in 17 appearances in 2010 and then failed to show any improvement in camp last year.
"You don't want to finish like that with any team," Perez said. "Something happened. I was working really hard to get back, but sometimes it doesn't work for a guy or a team."
But Perez's mind and body are feeling refreshed after a year away from that situation, thanks in part to a new role and a shot in a relatively anonymous situation where his every move isn't been analyzed and judged by his contract terms.
He's operating now on a make-good Minor League deal that will pay $750,000 if he makes the 25-man roster, plus a potential $250,000 in incentives for various levels of innings and games pitched.
The change in health, he says, is more significant than the difference in scrutiny.
"First of all, after I pitched in one game I felt good the next day," he said. "That's really good for me and my knee. Feeling this well for almost a year is very exciting. It's just great to get back here every day and try to get better every time out.
"Sometimes [with the Mets], I was trying to be in the game when I was not ready yet. Sometimes I was like 70 percent and I wanted to pitch, but I just got hurt again. My legs were not too strong. That was the key. My arm was always real good. The problem was my legs. But right now, I feel real good and I can do anything like normal, so I feel very good, very excited about that."
When Perez posted a 0.63 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings of winter ball in Mexico, the Mariners noticed his fastball was returning. They figured the combination of getting healthy and being able to throw harder in short relief stints could be a boon for a once-successful Major Leaguer still just 30 years old.
"I haven't seen him in person the last couple years," said Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis. "But from what I understand, from a velocity standpoint, he's definitely up again. And we see a lot of life to his fastball as well. That's exciting and good for him and it could be good for us."
Perez said one of the Nationals' coaches suggested a switch to a relief role could help revive his Major League career last year, so he went to winter ball to work on it. And it didn't take long to see significant progress.
"Sometimes I'd see the [radar] gun at the games and it would be 92-94 and that felt good, because the past three years I was 85-87," he said. "That made me really happy, because I worked really hard and all that is paying off."
Along with the renewed heater comes renewed confidence, something that strayed in his final years with the Mets.
"When you don't see your old velocity it's disappointing and you start thinking too much and trying to use a lot of stuff," Perez said. "But right now, my velocity is getting back and I feel really confident and I think I can challenge hitters."
Perez has bounced back before. He was 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA with the Pirates in '06 before being dealt to the Mets for Xavier Nady. He then was sent to Triple-A, but wound up getting recalled in late August and then emerged as a key performer in the playoffs with his Game 4 win in the NLCS against St. Louis.
"That was one of those years where you never know," he said. "It's why you never give up."
And he's not about to give up now, not with another shot in a Major League camp. It's a new situation, a new environment and, for Perez, a new lease on life.
"There's a lot of really good young players, really good guys here," he said. "That's why I'm excited. When I got an opportunity and they called me for an invitation to the Seattle Mariners, that was my goal in winter ball. It's a chance to do my job and get an opportunity to be on a team again."