Perhaps with the exception of Heath Bell, who added playing poorly to his list of faux pas in Miami, no one engineered their way off of a team this season better than Chris Perez. First, he criticized Cleveland fans for not filling the ballpark and for booing him during one of his poorer outings. Then he got into it with an obnoxious fan in Oakland, directing some pretty R-rated language into the stands, took aim at the Indians front office, accusing them of being cheapskates, and, finally, he put a "kick me" sign on Manny Acta on the manager's way out of town. If I had to pick one player to change teams this offseason, it would be Perez. The good news, Clevelanders, is that you're not going to miss Perez much when he's pitching in a different uniform in 2013.
It's not that Perez is a bad pitcher; his 2012 was actually much better than his 2011 campaign, which looks like a real outlier in his career. In addition to his strikeout rate being back to his career norm, he posted the lowest walk percentage of his career (6.6 percent of batters faced). He saved 39 of the 43 chances he got and posted a completely respectable (though not elite) 3.34 FIP. That was tied for 57th out of 136 relievers who threw more than 50 innings in 2012 with Wesley Wright of the Astros and Antonio Bastardo of the Phillies, not exactly prominent names.
While Perez was fine out of the bullpen, Cleveland had the equally excellent Vinnie Pestano setting up for him. Pestano threw more innings in more games, struck out more batters, and posted an ERA more than a full run lower than Perez (though his FIP was slightly higher). Pestano is scheduled to make around the league minimum next year, while Perez will be entering his second year of arbitration eligibility. Should Perez be traded, Terry Francona would have a similar (potentially better) and cheaper option available to him at the end of games, freeing up more money for Chris Antonetti to pursue desperately needed help for the rotation or first base.
And if 2012 (to say nothing of the past several years) have taught us anything, it's that closers are incredibly replaceable. Just look at what's been going on around the league this year:
● Jose Valverde has completely lost the faith of Jim Leyland and Tigers fans. Leyland closed out the ALCS putting leads in the capable hands of Phil Coke, who's actually probably his third- or fourth-best reliever.
● The Giants lost Brian Wilson to Tommy John surgery, but have had tremendous success going to Santiago Casilla and then to Sergio Romo.
● Yankees had to contend with the loss of the greatest reliever in baseball history and yet they posted the best record in the American League and reached the ALCS with Rafael Soriano closing for them.
● Fernando Rodney, who had put up a cumulative 4.42 ERA over the previous five seasons, posted the lowest Earned Run Average of all time.
● Tom Wilhelmsen of the Mariners was a 27-year-old at Double-A in 2011. This year he saved 29 games in the majors.
● Glen Perkins was a failed starter with a bum shoulder until breaking out as a Twins setup man last year. He saved 16 games this year after taking over from an injured Matt Capps.
● Finally, Jim Johnson of the Orioles was 29 and Jason Motte of the Cardinals was 30, and neither had saved more than 10 games in any previous season before they led their respective leagues in that stat.
This seemingly random rise of relievers isn't even atypical. The point, dear friends, is that "closers" are pretty darn fungible, a lot more fungible than we tend to give them credit for being. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that all a team needs to is find an above-average reliever who can get a few strikeouts, put them in with a lead, and chances are he'll save 85 percent or so of his opportunities. The Indians' problem will be what to do with the rest of their bullpen, which didn't exactly light it up behind Pestano, Joe Smith, and Esmil Rogers. But as easy as it is to find a potential closer, it's even easier to scare up a couple extra relievers, either by moving a failed starter into the pen or by picking a Jared Burton up off the scrap heap, as the Twins did last year. So don't worry, Clevelanders, the only difference you're likely to see if Perez has moved on is less hair at the end of games and less drama off the field.