Oliver Perez: Blame Higuera?

"Oh, hi, didn't see you there!" A promo still from Oliver Perez's one-man show, "Wild on the Mound." (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Oliver Perez's departure from the Mets is all but a formality at this point. He has been demoted to competing for a bullpen spot, but even in a camp with a dearth of lefty options, it seems unlikely he will go north with the team.

When I think of Perez, after I've unclenched my teeth and fists in rage, I think about this time of year back in 2009, when he left Port St. Lucie to pitch for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Before then, Perez was an intriguing (if maddeningly inconsistent) pitcher. Ever since, all he's inspired from Mets fans are ulcers or thoughts of bodily harm. If I don't exactly blame the WBC for this turn of events, I don't exactly let it off the hook, either.

Perez followed a decent 2007 with a slightly-less-than-decent 2008. He led the league in walks (105) and pitched to a 4.22 ERA, but posted a respectable K total of 180. If nothing else, he could be relied on to take the ball every fifth day, starting 34 games and logging 194 innings. Under the Omar Minaya regime, such meager accomplishments earned you an obscene contract, and so when Perez hit free agency, he was gifted a three-year, $36 million deal.

The lefty squeezed in a tiny bit of work early in spring training 2009 before departing for the WBC. He tossed two scoreless innings on February 26, striking out three and allowing only one walk. It was about as good as things would get for Perez all year.

In the WBC itself, to say Perez struggled would not be so much kind as it would be lying. In a mere 6 2/3 innings of work, he gave up a staggering five home runs and pitched to an ERA that pushed north of 9. Most damaging of all, however, may have been his last appearance of the series against Korea. Mexico's manager Vinny Castilla left him in to throw 85 pitches at a time in spring when few pitchers are given that kind of workload.

The Mets attempted to keep tabs on Perez's conditioning, but admitted they were unable to get through to Mexico's pitching coach, Teddy Higuera. Even now, it is staggering to me that the team could not effectively monitor a pitcher who'd just received a ginormous contract, regardless of whether it was the Mets' lack of due diligence or Higuera's negligence (or a combination of the two).

When Perez returned to Port St. Lucie shortly thereafter, he confessed he felt tired from the effort and intensity of the WBC. Pitching coach Dan Warthen immediately noticed his mechanics were completely out of wack from where they'd been before he left. In his first Grapefruit League assignment upon returning, he managed three scoreless innings against the Orioles on March 20, but also struggled to get the ball over the plate; only 27 of his 49 pitches were strikes. Perez implied the home plate umpire was responsible for his struggles, telling the Daily News, "Sometimes you have an umpire with a small zone. Sometimes you have an umpire with a big zone. You just have to follow him."

Very soon, it became painfully clear that the Mets had more than umpires to worry about when it came to Perez. In his next tuneup start, Perez looked awful, giving up six earned runs, five hits, and six walks. Both his velocity and accuracy were significantly missing. Warthen now admitted to the press that Perez was "out of shape." "I was a little bit reticent when he left here," Warthen said, "and my worries have come to fruition."

His last true spring training outing calmed Warthen's worries for a moment, as Perez went 6 2/3 innings against the Orioles, giving up only one run and one walk. Warthen even allowed himself to say "I think he's back to where he was last year." But in the second game ever at CitiField, an exhibition game against the Red Sox, Perez was dreadful. He walked four, gave up a grand slam to Jed Lowrie, and was charged with six runs in a mere 2/3 of an inning before being getting yanked.

Those hoping Perez would somehow pull it together have received no positive proof ever since.

To be fair, a player who would completely neglect his conditioning the second he was out of his team's sight could've succumbed to any number of temptations or fates--especially a player who did so while ostensibly pitching for national pride. If not the WBC, Perez's downfall may have been precipitated by an injury sustained during a pickup basketball game, or at an all-you-can-eat buffet, or while being distracted by a shiny object. Not to mention that, considering Perez's proclivities before the WBC, we'd likely seen his ceiling.

Still, it seems that the WBC was the turning point of Perez's career. It's hard not to think about what Perez might have been had he stayed in Mets camp in the spring of 2009. Even if the answer is "a frustratingly mediocre pitcher," it would still be better than what he is now.

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