Perez: Summer in St. Louis, Memphis or China?

St. Louis Cardinals relief prospect Chris Perez is still vying for a job on the big club this spring. If not, he will be pitching in Triple-A and could be asked to rejoin Team USA for the Summer Olympics.

In recent months, Bryan Anderson, Colby Rasmus and Chris Perez shared a common goal. As members of Team USA in the fall of 2007, they joined to try to take the gold at the IBAF Baseball World Cup. Then all three reported to spring training with hopes of making the St. Louis Cardinals this month.

Both challenges were most significant. They jointly accomplished the first, but the second was more elusive for the first two prospects.

None of the three youngsters, fast risers within the club's system, are yet needed to be placed on the club's 40-man roster and only one of the three, Perez, has seen any Triple-A time. So, returning to the minor leagues should not be considered surprising.

Still, with only a week before the start of the regular season, Perez remains with the major league club.

The three from Team USA

In Anderson's case, his chance of coming north with the Cardinals was pretty close to zero from the very start. As a result, he was among the first players assigned to minor league camp and is penciled in to repeat Double-A Springfield.

Rasmus, the much-hyped top prospect of the club, struggled a bit in the early going this spring, then turned it on. Yet when all was said and done, he was sent down for his initial Triple-A action. Now the stage is set for a season during which there will probably be a regular "Rasmus watch", as anxious fans await Colby's arrival in the majors.

That leaves Perez, the oldest of the three (22). Though drafted a year later (2006 vs. 2005 for the others, Perez played in college for the perennial powerhouse Miami Hurricanes, so it is understandable that he moved more quickly through the Cardinals system.

In 2007, Perez starred for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals before finishing the season with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, collecting a total of 35 saves between the two stops.

Anointed by many as the Cardinals' "closer of the future", expectations on Perez are high. A combination of factors with incumbent Jason Isringhausen adds to the intrigue. With Izzy's past hip problems, his being in the later years of his career at age 35, a relatively large salary and playing in the final year of his contract all add up to potential opportunity for Perez.

The question is how soon?

Is Perez ready?

To date this spring, Perez has answered the bell. In ten innings over eight games, only three runs have crossed the plate on eight hits, for a 2.70 ERA. The righty has also struck out eight, though his only real bugaboo, walks, are at five.

Yet despite the spring success and having a legitimate chance to nab a spot at the back of the bullpen, the reality is that Perez hasn't yet even joined the Cardinals 40-man roster. Once Clayton Mortensen was assigned out, Perez became the final non-roster invitee prospect remaining in big league camp.

Perez' chances of making the 25-man opening day roster have actually improved in recent days. There was already one spot open before swingman Brad Thompson apparently claimed the final rotation spot, a decision that will bump Anthony Reyes down to Triple-A. This created a second bullpen spot as well, where Thompson was previously penciled in.

Competing with Perez are fellow non-roster invitees Cliff Politte and Hugo Castellanos along with Kelvin Jimenez and Kyle McClellan. Now, two of the five look to make the club out of spring training.

Even so, the openings may be fleeting.

Not totally under his control

When any one of three rehabbing starting pitchers come back, Joel Pineiro, Matt Clement and Mark Mulder, the domino effect will likely bump Thompson and/or Wellemeyer into the pen, eliminating the spots of the new players noted above. Pineiro looks to be first in line, perhaps being ready by mid-April. Mulder and Clement may or may not return in May.

In addition, two regular members of the relief corps are out of action, with at least one of them on track for an early-season comeback. Righty Josh Kinney is progressing toward a May return from two elbow surgeries while lefty Tyler Johnson's sore shoulder is keeping his schedule to resume pitching unclear.

On the other side of the ledger, unforeseen injuries have a way of creating immediate opportunities where none were previously thought to exist.

So even if Perez makes the club coming out of camp, does he have what it takes to stick when the bodies start flying around?

What can Perez control?

His pitches certainly have the velocity, hitting 96 miles per hour in one recent game I witnessed. The numbers reinforce that what Perez lacks at times is pinpoint control, something the pitcher is very much aware of.

"Even going back to high school and college, I have always had a little bit of a wild streak. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it is bad. I guess you could say I am effectively wild. I throw enough strikes when I need to and make enough good pitches when I need to," Perez noted.

Still he would like to cut down on the walks and considers it work in progress.

"Somehow I always seem to walk a guy or two in a couple of outings. I will keep on working on it. That is the biggest thing I have to work on everyday. That is something I can work on and get better on. It is something I can control."

At this point, Perez is happy to still be in camp with his immediate goal in sight – to make the Cardinals out of spring training.

Preparation

Not that one could ever tell by the results, but a whirlwind off-season outside the norm disrupted Perez' preparation for the 2008 season. Some have suggested Perez could be better conditioned. To this writer, the pitcher does look heaver than his listed weight of 225.

In his mind, what matters most to Perez is throwing often. On one hand, that seems to be far from assured for a pitcher potentially at the back of the major league pen, yet on the other, looking at the state of the Cardinals rotation, their relievers should again see a large number of innings in 2008.

"I actually do better when I pitch regularly. I had stopped in September (when Memphis' season ended) and didn't start up again until October when we reported to Team USA. I took four to six weeks off," Perez said.

A missed opportunity

Perez is clearly honored to have earned a gold medal in Taipei, Taiwan in November. After all, in doing so, the U.S. snapped a 33-year winless streak at the Baseball World Cup, ending a streak of nine consecutive championships for Cuba.

Yet Perez also considers the experience as a missed opportunity. A minor injury limited his effectiveness and eventually cost him his role as closer.

"I had a small cut here on my finger (pointing to the tip of his middle finger on his right, pitching hand). About the time it healed and I got going, I had lost my job," he explained.

Despite wanting to pitch all the time, Perez did take another month off over the winter. "I arrived home from Taiwan just before Thanksgiving and took some time," he explained.

Looking ahead

To have another shot at Team USA for the Bejing Olympics this summer would mean Perez would have to be in the minor leagues, as Major Leaguers are excluded from the international competition.

"I would honored if asked to play in China this summer," Perez said. Instead, he really hopes he will be pitching in front of large MLB crowds half a world away at the time.

Though Perez may have unfinished closing business with Team USA, he would prefer to be wearing the birds on the bat uniform of the St. Louis Cardinals, both when the season starts and still (or at least again) this summer.

"That's the goal," Perez said simply.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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