Rafael Perez has clearly been the best reliever in Cleveland this summer, and from a fantasy perspective, that's hurting his value. But there's a chance his role, and fantasy worth, is about to significantly change.
Give Eric Wedge credit for being a little more outside-the-box than most managers today. He doesn't overrate the final three outs of a ballgame just because it's the "ninth inning." Last year he had no problem using journeyman Joe Borowski for the cushy ninth-inning gig, while Perez and Rafael Betancourt bobbed-and-weaved out of the trickier jams in the sixth, seventh and eighth. It was a happy ending for Cleveland; aided greatly by the sixth-best relief ERA in the majors, the Tribe finished one game short of the World Series.
Things have been trickier for the Indians in 2008. A slew of key hitters slumped or got hurt. CC Sabathia started slowly, cut off extension talks, and eventually brokered a ticket out of town. Fausto Carmona lost his Mojo and landed on the DL. And the bullpen, last year's backbone, completely fell apart, becoming the worst unit in the majors (5.11 ERA). Borowski pitched so poorly the team had no choice but to cut him, and Betancourt lost his way too.
Enter the dog days of August, and Wedge is left with two realistic options for the closer chair: Perez and Masa Kobayashi, the veteran Japanese righty the club signed in the offseason. Kobayashi has been up-and-down in his first season here, but no one's afraid of his stuff: he's allowed eight homers since May 1 and he's striking out less than 6 batters per 9 innings.
Kobayashi's most recent misstep came today in Tampa; he allowed a three-run homer to Carlos Pena in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Rays a walk-off win. Edward Mujica also imploded in the ninth, allowing three runs in front of Kobayashi, and that's how a 7-4 Cleveland lead turns into a 10-7 loss.
Perez? He was brilliant earlier in the game, mowing down the Rays over the seventh and the eighth (1 H, 4 K). He did another two inning hitch Monday, working the eighth and ninth and picking up a rare two-inning save. Obviously Wedge has a decision to make going forward - should he continue to use Perez as a classical bullpen ace and summon him at a game's most critical point (letting the multiple-run leads in the ninth fall to someone else), or should he start funneling Perez to the ninth inning and take a more modern tack on this? Wedge has stopped short of endorsing Perez as a future closer in the past, but nothing kicks a team in the stomach like a giveaway in the ninth - perhaps today's game could serve as some sort of tipping point. Wedge conceded the obvious to the Cleveland Plain Dealer; today was one of the team's worst defeats of the season.
Perez being left-handed doesn't enter the equation, for what it's worth - he's been the team's most effective reliever against both lefties and righties this season. He'll miss more than enough bats - 56 strikeouts over 54.2 innings, essentially the same rate as late year.
I don't blame Wedge for his bullpen-usage patterns; I salute him for not automatically endorsing conventional wisdom. I like managers who think differently. If I managed a ballclub, I'd toss the save definition in the garbage and use my best relievers whenever I deemed it most necessary. But from a fantasy perspective, I can't help but think that there's a chance Perez might go on a save flurry over the final two months. And with that, let's get in on it now - his ownership in Y! leagues was less than five percent last I checked.
You know your league and your bullpen situation better than I do. In medium and deep leagues, it's time to audit your staff and see if Perez fits your plans.
- Eric Wedge