One of the feel-good stories from the Twins’ early-season success was the performance of lefthander Martin Perez. Perez was signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal during the offseason after going 2-7 with a 6.22 ERA in 22 games and 15 starts with the Texas Rangers.
The response from many fans was that this was a typical bargain-bin signing by the Twins.
The front office felt differently. General manager Thad Levine was familiar with Perez from their time together in Texas, and there was confidence that new Twins’ pitching coach Wes Johnson could help Perez get back on track.
Minnesota did not need a fifth starter to open the season and Perez made three appearances out of the bullpen before getting his first start on April 15 against Toronto. Using a recently added cut fastball, Perez gave up one run in six innings against the Blue Jays. That began an eight-start stretch during which Perez went 6-1 with a 2.17 ERA, giving up 17 walks and five home runs while striking out 44 in 49.2 innings.
Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey had arrived from Cleveland with a reputation for being able to find pitching and, along with Levine and Johnson, it looked like he had hit the jackpot, especially when you also factored in how good Jake Odorizzi was pitching around that time. It appeared to be a no-brainer that the Twins would pick up their club option on Perez that would pay him $7.5 million in 2020.
Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon at Target Field and there appear to be no certainties when it comes to Perez. This includes how much longer he will remain in the Twins’ starting rotation. Minnesota’s once comfortable lead over Cleveland in the AL Central is down to two games after the Indians swept the Rangers in a doubleheader on Wednesday, and Cleveland will open a four-game series Thursday at Target Field.
Perez entered his start against the Braves on Wednesday with an ERA of 6.00 in his past five starts and talk of his nasty cutter is long gone. Perez got leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr. to fly to center but Ozzie Albies crushed the first pitch he saw — a 94 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball — to left-center for a home run.
Freddie Freeman then came to the plate and hit Perez’s initial offering to him — a 92.3 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball — to left-center for another homer. The Braves led 3-0 after the first, 6-0 after the third and the Twins had their work cut out for them in what became an 11-7 loss, Minnesota’s second in two days to the NL East-leading Braves. The early damage could have been much worse if Perez did not get a 5-4-3 triple play to end the third inning with the bases loaded.
Nonetheless, the Twins gave up 23 runs to the Braves in the final two games of the series, including 16 combined by starters Jose Berrios and Perez. This came after the Twins beat Atlanta, 5-3, in the opening game on Miguel Sano’s pinch-hit, walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Perez had a 7-3 record and 3.95 ERA in 15 starts before the All-Star break. He had given up seven home runs in 86.2 innings. Since the break, Perez is 0-2 with a 6.67 ERA and has surrendered 11 home runs in five starts. Given that Twins manager Rocco Baldelli did not want to exhaust his bullpen before the Indians arrived, Perez was left in to pitch six innings. He gave up seven runs, six earned, with 11 hits, two walks and six strikeouts and threw 102 pitches. His ERA is now at 4.80.
“I know I’ve been trending down, but I believe in myself and I trust my stuff,” Perez told reporters afterward. “I never gave up. I know good things are coming, and I’ve just got to be ready for when those days come.”
The concern has to be that those days aren’t going to return in 2019. That could mean that one of the feel-good stories of the early season might soon find himself where he began the season — back in the bullpen.