In the past several years, there have been plenty of relievers that have been revitalized in a Rays uniform. Joel Peralta, though, has been something entirely different. Peralta was an up-and-down reliever for years with the Angels, Royals, and Rockies before having a breakout season with the Nationals as a 34 year old in 2010, managing a 2.01 ERA with 49 strikeouts against just 5 unintentional walks in 49 innings pitched. Instead of turning him around, the Rays simply jumped on the bandwagon and the result s were spectacular. In his first season with the team in 2011, Peralta managed a 2.93 ERA in 71 appearances, even filling in as closer when Kyle Farnsworth dealt with injury problems in September. Peralta got off to a rough start to 2012, but he managed a 2.85 ERA in his final 75 appearances. Then Peralta was pitching better than ever to begin 2013, managing a 1.97 ERA in his first 36 appearances of the season. But then it all fell apart. Peralta’s ERA jumped to 4.73 in his final 45 appearances, including a 5.40 ERA and just a 14-10 strikeout to walk ratio in 13.1 innings pitched. After years of defying time, Peralta finally started showing all of 37 years, and hitters took advantage. And the worst part of it all is that Peralta is signed for another year with three team options after that. Were the Rays wrong to sign a relatively old player to a multi-year contract?
The last several years, the workload that Joel Peralta has incurred has been almost unbelievable. He led the American League with 80 appearances this year, up from 76 in 2012 and 71 in 2011. Before that, Peralta hadn’t ever made 65 major league appearances in a season, and he hadn’t even made more than 40 appearances in a season since 2007. In fact, Peralta became the first pitcher in major league history to have three years with 70 or more appearances at age 35 or later after not having a single season of 65 or more appearances or a single start earlier in his career. Peralta has only pitched so much because he has been extremely effective, but this season saw Peralta finally show signs of wearing down. Who can blame him? It is far easier to place the blame on Joe Maddon for overworking his star reliever and Andrew Friedman for guaranteeing a player like this money for next season.
We keep talking about Peralta being signed for next season, but the entire argument against the deal ignores the fact that his salary will be only $3 million. That is nothing to scoff at, especially for the Rays, but the Rays would have no major issue if that money went to waste. Peralta does have three team options for $2.5 million for 2015 to 2017, but there are no buyouts at all for each of those options. The Rays could potentially have Peralta until 2017, but if they cut him right now, the cost would be just $3 million. The Rays set themselves up for maximum efficiency while taking the lowest possible amount of risk. Even if Joel Peralta gets hit around to begin next season and retires, it will still be hard to dispute the contract as one of Friedman’s best moves yet. There is also, of course, the possibility that Peralta poor second half will go down as just a bump in the road.
It seems convenient that Peralta’s increasing age and workload corresponded flawlessly with his collapse. However, correlation does not imply causation and we can’t just assume that’s true. Peralta did have a few games where his velocity was down, but on the whole, his supposed fatigue did not manifest itself as a velocity loss. Peralta struggled more because of issues commanding his splitter and curveball than anything else. Could that have been because his tiredness prevented him from driving the ball down in the zone as well as he had before? Yes, that is possible. But there is always the chance that Peralta was simply struggling like he has been prone to do occasionally in the past. Joel Peralta doesn’t have dominant stuff, and because of that, he gets his hard when he leaves his pitches up. Doesn’t it make sense that Peralta’s implosion at the end of the year could have been due to command issues that had little to do with his workload at all?
Whatever the reason that Peralta came apart in the second half, there is no reason that Peralta can’t be perfectly fine next season if used correctly. Maybe the end has come for Joel Peralta as a nearly everyday late-inning arm. But if the Rays reduce his appearances down to say 60 a year, he could be just fine. Maybe it’s too late and the damage has already been done, but it is certainly worth a try. Peralta pitching less would reduce his value, but as long as the Rays have other setup options–which they believe they do in Alex Torres and Jake McGee–Peralta can still be a critical part of their bullpen. A loss of Joel Peralta as a ridiculously durable reliever does not necessarily mean Peralta will cease being an effective bullpen arm altogether.
Something is likely ending for Joel Peralta in 2014. Maybe it’s his career or maybe it’s just his streak of 70-appearance years. Either way, the Rays will have no regrets about his contract. They are committed to Peralta for at least one more year, but $3 million is far from a prohibitive salary and there is a real chance he will be just fine. It will be interesting to see where Peralta goes after struggling to end 2013. No matter what happens, though, there is no reason to complain about a genius contract that will cost the Rays little even if everything goes wrong.