By now, you have heard the bad news; Tribe closer Kerry Wood is out 6-8 weeks with a lat strain. If this were a year in which the Wahoo Nation were thinking contention, there would be massive “here we go again, we can’t catch a break” talk. This year, nobody seems to be all that concerned. Why? Well because the “experts” think the Indians are going to be a bottom-feeder in 2010. The other reason – they actually have a viable, backup, closer in waiting in Chris Perez to take the job right away.
Perez, the power throwing right-hander, came over from St. Louis in the Mark DeRosa trade last June. We will look back one of these days and say this was one of Mark Shapiro’s best heists, up there with Asdrbual Cabrera for Eduardo Perez and turning Ben Broussard into Shin-Soo Choo. DeRosa was in Cleveland for half a season, and Perez will be a mainstay in the back of the bullpen for years to come.
Everyone remembers his first game in the Red, White, and Blue in which he hit the first two batters he faced, walked the third, and gave up four runs in 2/3rds of an inning. A week later, he entered a game in the sixth with the Tribe leading the White Sox 3-2. He exited with the scored 7-3 after Paul Konerko crushed him for a grand slam. That was his low point. However, Perez-Right showed some serious mettle and turned himself into the most reliable Indians reliever the rest of the way.
From July 8th to September 8th, the 23-year old put together 20 consecutive scoreless appearances, lowing his ERA from 23.14 to 2.35. Everything the Indians were told about him was coming together. His power stuff translated perfectly into a back-end bullpen guy. Even with the team floundering, Perez and lefty Tony Sipp made quite the 1-2 punch in front of Wood. So entering Spring Training, the hope was that this set-up crew and closer would carry the end of 2009 over.
That went out the window with the Wood injury. Now, Perez has been thrust into the closer’s role, something he has done essentially his entire minor league career. “This will be a good audition,” Perez said. “But it’s not a good situation for the team. It’s a big blow. Hopefully [the prognosis] is wrong, and Kerry will be back sooner, and I can get back to being the eighth-inning guy.”
Manager Manny Acta knows this isn’t an ideal situation for his young club, but he has a ton of confidence in his new closer. “He’s got the solid makeup to do it. He’s the type who can blow off the bad games,” Acta said. “The kid has always dreamed of being a closer, and now he gets his opportunity.”
With Wood out and Perez elevated to the closer’s role, everyone else has to step up and carve out new roles. One thing I see; there is a gaping hole on the right-side in getting the ball to Perez with a lead.
Sipp, who finished last year allowing just three earned runs in his last 23 2/3 innings pitched (25 appearances), will get the first shot at the eighth inning, though according to reports, his spring has been up and down. However, he has the makeup to be that guy. Said new pitching coach Tim Belcher “he’s one of those guys who turns into a little bit different kind of animal when the lights go on and the stadium is full.”
Then you have the duo of lefty Rafael Perez and side-winding righty Joe Smith. Raffy Perez – or Perez Left as we will call him this year – was one of the best left-handed relievers in the game two seasons ago, but the wheels fell off his wagon in ’09. His slider, which was once untouchable, was flat and he couldn’t get lefties out. Believe it or not, lefties hit a whopping .412 against him last season. That said, he started games in Dominican winter ball to find himself again, and his stuff came back. “If he continues to pitch like his has this spring in the first couple of weeks of the regular season, I don’t see why he couldn’t be,” said Belcher of Raffy’s chances of being the bridge to Perez Right.
As for Smith, he still needs to get past his bugaboo – getting out left-handed hitters. They hit .355 against him in ’09. However, with Smith possibly as a right-on-right guy, matching up with lefties Sipp and Raffy Perez could work.
The rest of the pen is littered with question marks. There are three spots open and the names fighting for those spots are certainly not Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson, and Paul Shuey.
You have holdover Jensen Lewis and his 88 mph fastball. Rule 5 draftee Hector Ambriz, a right-hander, is in the mix. Journeyman Jamey Wright has impressed, allowing just one earned run in 8.2 IP this spring. Acta’s former “workhorse” in Washington, Saul Rivera, is trying to make the roster as well. In ’07 and ’08 for the Nationals under Acta, Rivera made 85 and 76 appearances respectively. Then you have the possibility that if Aaron Laffey doesn’t win a spot in the rotation, he could be moved to the pen. Lefty Mike “John” Gosling, who had a cup of coffee with the Tribe last year, is a long shot.
Things should take shape over the next week. Acta has been on record as saying that he wants his 25-man roster ready for the last week of spring games to avoid the dreaded Eric Wedge patented slow start.
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)