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Tribe Happenings: Perez did not look ready for the opener

Tribe Happenings: Perez did not look ready for the opener
April 8, 2012
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Perez blows the opener

It is only one game. They always say that. But they are all important. Just ask the Red Sox and Braves who both missed the playoffs by one game last season.

Games like the one right-handed closer Chris Perez blew on Thursday are tough to swallow. The fact it was on opening day only makes it hurt more. Had this been a game in the middle of the season, you accept it and move on. Every closer is going to have an outing like this at some point. They are human.

But the disturbing part about Perez’s performance on Thursday was that he simply looked like a pitcher that was not ready to go. His velocity was down to 90-92 MPH, his command was completely off, and he was getting hit hard and not fooling anyone.

Perez threw 31 pitches and only 17 of them were strikes, got just one swing and miss, and threw just two first pitch strikes to the seven hitters he faced.  Sometimes a guy that can’t find the strike zone can be effectively wild, but even when he brought the ball into the zone the Blue Jays had no problem squaring him up for three well hit balls.  They just sat back and waited for him to bring a fastball into the zone.

Perez had an oblique injury that he suffered early in spring training. He rehabbed it and at the end of spring training the Indians training staff cleared him and he is supposedly healthy, but he looked like a pitcher that was not ready to begin the season.  If that was the case, then that falls on the Indians as they made the decision to have him open the season with the team instead of on the disabled list for a week or two to give him a little more time and a short minor league rehab assignment to be ready.

That is not a rash judgment based solely on the results of his afternoon on Thursday, but instead is the result of looking below the surface. His fastball was topping out at 92 MPH, but was often at 90-91 MPH, which is about three to four MPH below what he usually averages. When you combine a significant dip in velocity along with an inability to control the zone, a lot of times it can mean a pitcher is pitching hurt and trying to hide an injury. That is cause for concern. Even after one game.

Perez’s problems on Thursday could have been him holding back in fear of re-aggravating the oblique he strained at the start of spring training, or it could have been that he was truly not yet 100%.  Bottom line, a team simply cannot afford to have a closer out there pitching the ninth inning that can’t get ahead in the count, allows too many baserunners, and is completely ineffective.

The hope is that it was just one game and that he comes back the next ten outings and is lights out. He got things going in the right direction with a one-two-three inning on Saturday and was up a tick with  his velocity at 91-93 MPH.  But the velocity is still well below what he used to pitch at, and he still looks like a guy that could have used an additional week in Arizona or on a minor league rehab assignment to get him in game shape.

Take that guy out

I also disagree with manager Manny Acta’s comments after the game that you do not take a closer out of the game until he blows it. Sure, you apply that line of thinking in a one or two run game as you typically only have three or four batters before the save is blown so you let him work through it.

But in the case of a three or four run lead, after about four or five batters you can tell when it is slipping and if a guy is struggling and simply does not have it. And after the Blue Jays reached base for two hits to lead the inning off you could tell things were beginning to unravel quickly.

Perez threw 17 strikes on the afternoon, but seven of them came to the first two hitters. After that he threw 22 pitches to his last five hitters and just ten of them were strikes. Several of his pitches were nowhere near the strike zone and he was missing badly. Considering he was all over the place and given his injury in spring training and his limited amount of games to get up to full speed, he should have been on a short leash. But he was not.

People may say you can’t take out your closer and you have to let him finish. I mostly agree with that, but I absolutely dislike the notion that a closer can never be taken out. As a manager you manage to win. You do not just stop managing when the closer is inserted into the game.

With a perfectly healthy and effective Vinnie Pestano ready in the pen you have to strongly consider him when Edwin Encarnacion stepped to the plate with the tying runs on base.  You go for the win and worry about managing psyches later.  If the closer you took out that is getting lit up and can’t throw strikes has a problem with that and can’t handle it, well, maybe he should not be closing anyway.

Managers take out starting pitchers all the time when things come unglued for them, or if a setup man in the eighth inning is struggling. They remove any pitcher any time they are struggling and do not wait for them to blow the game.  They get them out of there before they do and put in a (hopefully) better option to stop the bleeding. That same way of thinking should apply to a closer that is having trouble closing out a three or more run lead.

Masterson was masterful

Even though the Indians lost the opener and Perez had a disappointing outing, it is hard not to come away with a good feeling by what was seen by the rest of the pitching staff. Namely right-handed starting pitcher Justin Masterson.

Masterson was in midseason form as he threw 99 pitches – 66 for strikes – in his eight innings of work and allowed just one run on two hits and a walk, and had ten strikeouts. He was as good as he has ever been in an Indians uniform as he consistently worked the ball down in the zone recording ten of his eleven outs in the field via a groundball.  The hope is that with the steps that he took last season that maybe he has now turned the corner and has become a bonafide ace.

There is a long way to go this season, but what an incredible start for Masterson.  It was reminiscent to the outing former Indians’ right-handed starting pitcher Bartolo Colon had back in 2002 to open the season against the Angels. Up until then he was a very good pitcher, but that season he transformed into an elite pitcher and an ace on a pitching staff.

If I am the Indians, I am talking contract extension with Masterson right now. He is signed this season for $3.8 million and the Indians control him for two more years beyond this season, but they should be trying to ink him to a three to five year extension right now to lock in his salary for his next two arbitration seasons and potentially buy out one or two free agent years.

It is a risk the Indians need to take. They have been burned of late with long term deals, but that is the cost of doing business and is something they need to strongly consider with keeping their core group of players around awhile longer. It would also be a good PR move for a fan base that often counts down the days before the next good player is traded because he is nearing free agency.

Masterson appears ready to take on the role as ace of the staff and having him locked in for the next four to five years will help the team fill out the rest of the pitching staff. When you have an ace at the top of the rotation it is much easier to fill the last four spots in the rotation than it is to fill the last four spots and find an ace.

Ubaldo has encouraging start

With Masterson off to a great start the next line of business is getting right-handed starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez on track. During spring training his problems commanding his pitches – all six or seven of them – were still evident and his velocity is still significantly down from where it once was back in 2010 with the Rockies.

Things could not have been more different on Saturday as Jimenez set down the first 17 batters he faced and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He left the game after seven innings and allowed two runs on one hit, three walks, and had three strikeouts. His fastball often sat at 91-94 MPH, so the velocity is still down, but his secondary pitches were very sharp and effective.

It is tough to ask much more from Jimenez in his first start, and hopefully it is the beginning of him turning his career around. It is no secret that getting him back on track and part of a good one-two punch with Masterson is vital to the Indians’ chances of success this season.

After the game Jimenez also dropped his appeal of the five game suspension he received earlier in the week for his beaning of Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki last weekend. With an off day on Thursday he will be able to serve his five game suspension without losing any time or the Indians having to adjust their rotation.

Jimenez and Tulowitzski have not been on good terms since Jimenez’s departure from the Rockies last July, and Tulowitzki recently made some questionable comments to the press about how Jimenez pouted about his contract with the Rockies. Obviously Jimenez did not take those comments well as in Tulowitzki’s first plate appearance Jimenez drilled him in the back with a fastball.

As Tulowitzki chirped back Jimenez almost immediately charged toward home plate to confront Tulowitzki. After a brief exchange and the benches clearing, order was quickly restored. Rockies manager Jim Tracy ripped Jimenez in the post-game calling it the “most gutless” thing he has seen during his time in baseball. While Jimenez said he did not intentionally throw at Tulowitzki, it was pretty convenient that his first pitch “got away” from him, and the MLB offices saw through that as well and earlier this week suspended him for five games.

Asdrubal extended

Some other good news from this past week was the Indians putting the finishing touches to a two-year $16.5 million contract extension for shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera on Wednesday.

Cabrera, 26, earned his first All-Star selection in 2011 and was awarded an American League Silver Slugger after he hit .273 with 25 homers and 92 RBI in 151 games.  Last season he led the team in runs (87), hits (165), RBI (92) and stolen bases (17), and topped American League shortstops in RBI, was tied for first in hits and was second in runs, doubles and home runs.  His 92 RBI were the most by an Indians shortstop since Lou Boudreau (106) won the 1948 MVP Award, and his 25 home runs as a shortstop were the most in the 111-year history of the Cleveland Indians franchise and the most ever for a Venezuelan-born shortstop.

Cabrera is making $4.6 million this season – his second of three arbitration season – and will now make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014. He would have been a free agent after his final arbitration year next season, so the Indians simply locked his arbitration number up for next season and bought out one free agent year. He is now under team control through the 2014 season. This may be the first of several contract extensions the Indians announce this coming season.

Roberto Hernandez update

There is still no word on when right-handed starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez will be cleared by the U.S. State Department to get a visa and return to the states. The Indians seem to believe that by him agreeing to restructure his contract and lose close to $7.5 million that it will be penalty enough and that Major League Baseball will not suspend him.  It still looks like the best case scenario for a return to the mound in Cleveland could be late May, assuming he returns a few weeks before that and is ready to go after two to four minor league “rehab” outings.

Parting shots

Thursday’s 16-inning game was the longest season opening game in Major League Baseball history. The record prior to that was 15 innings, which happened twice. It first happened in 1926 when the Philadelphia Phillies fell to the Washington Senators 1-0 and also in 1960 when the Indians fell at home to the Detroit Tigers 4-2. … The Indians designated right-handed pitcher Henricus van den Hurk for assignment last week. He cleared waivers but declined his outright assignment to the minors so is a free agent. … Outfielder Thomas Neal – the player the Indians acquired for infielder Orlando Cabrera last July – was designated for assignment last week. He cleared waivers and has been outrighted to the minors.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his new book the 2012 Cleveland Indians Prospect Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

April 8, 2012 - 4:03 PM EDT
gotta say Chris Perez pitched brilliantly today. Man, Asdrubal almost makes you wish for the days of Jhonny "makes the easy plays" Peralta. I take back what I said about being surprised if Perez's still around, he looked like his old 2010 self, so hopefully thursday was just leftover issues from spring training. I do have to wonder about the radar gun, it seems everyone's velocity was down 2 mph. Perez was 92-94, but Pestano was registering 88-90 and his slider at 77-78, yesterday Morrow was off a couple mph too, so either everyone's velocity's down a lot or, the radar gun's off and Perez was at 94-96, Pestano at 90-92, and Ubaldo at 93-94, which would be much less frightening
April 8, 2012 - 2:51 PM EDT
Acta's comments on Perez are scary. Is there something in the Cleveland water that makes managers lose their edge? What I liked about Acta when he first arrived is he seemed willing to think outside the narrow box of baseball manager thinking. His comments on Perez are the ultimate in inside-the-box. The idea that a manager should leave his closer in usually has some validity, but it's based on the idea that the closer has the best stuff in the bullpen. Perez clearly wasn't the Indians' best reliever last year, much less on Thursday. Knowing what he knew from spring training, and from the evidence in front of his face on Thursday that Perez wasn't right, he should've had Pestano warming immediately. He never should've pulled Masterson in the first place, below 100 pitches. Bottom line: the Indians lost due to Acta's poor decision-making. What should've been an easy win turned into a depressing, bullpen-exhausting grind.

Speaking of not right, Ubaldo is not right. When I saw him yesterday he was sitting at 91mph and topping out at 92. His average was 91.7. What healthy 28-year-old loses 4 mph on their fastball? Red flags all over the place, just as with Perez. I'll be pleasantly surprised if either is still around in June.

We've seen all of their flaws early on, poor hitting, poor managing, and now today, shoddy defense. Sipp and C Perez are also going to be a drag on the bullpen ... I'd love to see Hagadone and CC Lee to replace them, C Perez to the DL, and Sipp, does Sipp have any options? He's always gotten by despite a bad FIP, it will catch up to him, he isn't overpowering and has poor commmand.

On the plus side, Masterson looks the same as last year, Lowe looks good, and Ubaldo at least showed he could still succeed without his fastball, so he has some value until his arm falls off.
April 8, 2012 - 1:38 PM EDT
I not too worried about pitching - starting or relief. I think it will be very good overall.

I am (very) concerned with the offense... whish the front office was as well.

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