CLEVELAND -- The Indians like what they're seeing from left-hander Rafael Perez in a starting role in winter ball. But not enough to convert him back to starting full-time. When 2010 dawns, Perez will once again be in the Tribe's bullpen, and he has plenty of room for improvement after a disastrous '09 in which he was supposed to be the Tribe's setup man but instead found himself demoted to Triple-A Columbus twice.
That's why the Tribe has Perez pitching in his native Dominican Republic this winter. The decision was also made to have Perez start some games to guarantee himself regular work. "We thought it would be beneficial for him to get some more work," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "We thought it was a good idea for him to extend himself, and [starting] would provide him with the best opportunity to lock in innings and mechanics." Perez is locked in, all right. Through six appearances, including five starts, for Gigantes del Cibao, he's gone 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA. He's allowed just 14 hits with 10 walks and 25 strikeouts in 27 innings of work. Those are numbers much more akin to what the Indians expected out of Perez coming into last season. Before big league hitters caught up with him in '09, Perez was arguably the most dominant left-handed reliever in the AL in 2007, when his 1.79 relief ERA was the third lowest in the league, and he was the Tribe's most durable relief option in '08, when he struck out 86 batters over 76 1/3 innings. A rough start to the '09 season seemed to sap Perez's confidence, and he never got on track. He dominated in Columbus, but he posted a 4-3 record and 7.31 ERA in 54 appearances in the big leagues. Most troubling of all, he let 28 percent of inherited runners score and left-handed hitters posted a 1.068 OPS against him. While rookie Tony Sipp emerged and became a viable late-inning option in the lefty relief role, the Indians are expected to count on Perez in 2010. And they'll be paying him decent bucks, as he has entered his first round of arbitration eligibility this winter. It remains to be seen how much of a raise Perez, who made $436,300 last season, will receive. But one thing that is for certain is that he won't be in the Tribe's starting pitching mix. Yes, Perez was a starter in the Minors before converting to the 'pen in what turned out to be his rookie year in 2006. But he logged just 69 2/3 innings between the Majors and Minors last year, so the Indians feel a normal starters' workload of upwards of 200 innings would be too much for him. "Obviously, we have had that discussion," Shapiro said. "But even if you wanted to do it, you would be putting him in harm's way. There's not any scenario where he could start 200 innings without endangering himself." Still, the main intent of having Perez pitch winter ball appears to have paid off, as he is racking up quick outs and, the Indians hope, building confidence for the year ahead.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.