The temptation is there to make some sort of joke about Kerry Wood and his relationship with the disabled list, but it’s just not all that funny anymore. The Indians closer will open the year on the DL – his seventh visit in the last six years – after an MRI revealed a "moderate" right shoulder strain. It’s just the latest in a long list of shoulder woes for Wood which will forever make him a risky option – no matter his role. As such, if you already drafted Wood for your fantasy club, you absolutely should have developed a plan B. The Indians Plan B is right-hander Chris Perez.
Perez, a former first round draft choice (42nd pick in the 2006 draft) of the St. Louis Cardinals, joined Cleveland in last summer’s Mark DeRosa trade. With his fastball/slider repertoire, Perez seems to be tailor-made for the ninth inning role. As such, he received a late season audition as closer in 2008 with the Cards and was fairly effective. Over the final two months of that season, he threw 18 innings, struck out 20 hitters and walked nine. Perez did well missing bats in this stretch, inducing hitters to swing and miss at 11% of his offerings while holding opponents to a .200 batting average and posting a 2.50 ERA. He collected seven saves in nine opportunities over those two months for St. Louis. It was a solid showing by Perez despite the fact he limped to the finish line. Perhaps he was just tired (he threw 67 innings in 87 appearances in 2008 between the majors and minors – both career highs) because in his final five appearances of the season when hitters put the ball in play, he enticed just a single grounder to go against 19 balls hit in the air.
That’s extreme for sure, but it’s an issue that Perez has been dealing with in his brief time in the majors. For his career he owns a 0.59 GB/FB ratio (including line drives in the fly ball number) and a number of those flies inevitably left the yard. In just under 100 major league innings, he’s surrendered 13 home runs which is certainly a high ratio for a potential closer. His career HR/FB rate checks in at 9.6%, so as long as he keeps his ratio on the extreme fly ball side, he'll continue to cough up his share of home runs.
While the abundance of fly balls are a negative, there’s certainly plenty to like about Perez in the ninth inning role. With a fastball that resides in the mid-90’s, he brings some decent heat and his slider is deceptive enough to miss plenty of bats. He punched out 68 hitters in 57 innings between St. Louis and Cleveland last summer and had batters swinging and missing at 16% of all of his pitches. He throws a strike roughly 63% of the time and jumped ahead in the count in 57% of all plate appearances. It follows that his command is acceptable at this point in his career. Last year, he owned a walk rate of 4.3 BB/9 which is pushing it for a potential closer, but he was much better after his trade to Cleveland where he owned a 3.2 BB/9. Given that he’s only 24 (he turns 25 on July 1), these rates are a good starting point for a young pitcher and will certainly provide a springboard for improvement.
Last year, the Indians used Perez primarily in the seventh and eighth innings, but he didn’t work in many high leverage situations and his 0.88 LEV placed him toward the bottom of the Cleveland bullpen. His -0.334 WXRL doesn’t inspire confidence but another late September fade (and 8.71 ERA and four home runs in his final 10.1 innings of the year) was especially brutal. Contrast that to a 1.38 LEV and 0.506 WXRL in 2008 when he was actually closing some games for the Cardinals.
Perez is the Indians best option at closer, but I like Joe Smith as well. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher (64% of all balls in play last year against Smith were on the ground) and possesses decent command. (3.4 BB/9 last year) Smith isn’t overpowering in the classic closer mode, but he will collect his share of strikeouts. Assume he’ll get the eighth inning Hold opportunities with an eye on the closer role should Perez falter. If Perez is Cleveland’s Plan B, Smith is their Plan C.
Among other Cleveland relievers, Jensen Lewis doesn’t have the command and dispenses home runs like Pez. Same for lefty Tony Sipp, although he’ll strikeout more hitters. WXRL says Sipp was the Indians best reliever last summer despite owning a walk rate of 5.6 B/9, which is a testament to how awful Cleveland's bullpen performed. Rafael Perez was a disaster last year, dropping his strikeout rate and becoming extremely hittable as a result and is now a huge question mark.
For reference, here's how everyone performed last year for Cleveland:
Perez should have been on your radar before Wood went down and is now a must buy. Smith deserves consideration in deeper leagues for the time being.