PHOENIX — While the signing of Francisco Rodriguez shifted roles around in the bullpen of the Milwaukee Brewers, those vying for the final spots in what is likely to be a seven-man relief corps watched as one of the few openings was suddenly gone.
Earlier in his career, Chris Perez might have let that bother him. But the 29-year-old knows there will be a job for him somewhere if he performs well in spring training.
"That didn’t really change my goals coming in," Perez said before Saturday’s workout at Maryvale Baseball Park. "I still have to pitch really well. They still have a spot open. I’m going to do everything I can to make the team. If not here, hopefully somewhere else."
The Brewers signed Perez to a minor-league deal in early February, adding the former All-Star closer to the bullpen mix. Milwaukee had at least two bullpen openings when he signed, but one was filled Thursday when the club agreed to terms with Rodriguez on a two-year deal.
If Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, Neal Cotts and Brandon Kintzler all make the Opening Day roster, just one bullpen spot remains. Things become more complicated if Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson get through spring training healthy and able to contribute.
"Everything always looks good on paper or on the board, but stuff happens in this game," Perez said. "Last year there were all kinds of injuries. Knock on wood, you never hope anyone goes down, but it is part of the game. That’s definitely something that’s part of the game.
"I know there are going to be other scouts watching. I have a couple outs in my contract. I just have to pitch well and everything else should take care of itself. If not here, hopefully somewhere else. If not somewhere else, hopefully I go to Triple-A and pitch well there to get called up early. That’s all you can do."
The Brewers must add Perez to their active roster five days prior to Opening Day or pay him $100,000 to stay in the organization at the Triple-A level. Perez then has the potential to opt out of his contract on May 1 and June 1 if he isn’t in the big leagues.
After accumulating 124 saves over his five years in Cleveland, Perez signed a $2.3 million deal with the Dodgers before last season to serve as the setup man to closer Kenley Jansen. He ended up struggling to a 4.27 ERA in 49 appearances and saw his role diminish as the season went on. The Dodgers prevented Perez from reaching a $500,000 bonus for appearing in 50 games by not pitching him over the final week of the season.
Milwaukee decided to take a chance on a former All-Star closer who still has good stuff. According to fangraphs.com, Perez’s average fastball was 94.3 mph, his highest average velocity since 2010.
"Last year didn’t go quite the way he’s used to, but I think (Brewers general manager) Doug (Melvin’s) idea of why he brought him in is because he has that experience and he’s done well at it in the past," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "It is always nice to have guys in there trying to make your team that have that kind of stuff and have been successful in the past."
This spring will be a much different experience than what Perez is used to, as he’s competing for a roster spot for first time since he was first breaking into the big leagues with St. Louis in 2008.
In the seven years since, Perez is 16-24 with a 3.51 ERA and 133 saves in 393 big-league games with the Cardinals, Indians and Dodgers.
"I can’t just go out there and say I’m working on stuff," Perez said. "I need to get results. I don’t know if that’s going to help me in the long run, but having to strap it on and bear down and get outs now. Hopefully that gets me locked in for the whole year instead of cruising through spring and trying to lock it in the last couple of outings.
"Every opportunity I throw I’m taking it as a serious situation. I’m trying to make pitches and try to get better every time out. I’ve thrown off the mound three times and I feel like every time has gotten better and better. Hopefully I just carry that into games."
The game of baseball can humble players in a variety of ways. Perez is just two years removed from when back-to-back All-Star Game appearances left him thought of as one of the best closers in the American League.
Now he’s in a fight to continue his big league career at just 29 years old.
"Hopefully my career is not done and this is just another chapter," Perez said. "I feel like I’m a better pitcher for what I’ve gone through. Experience-wise and just learning different roles in the bullpen. It is different coming in during the fifth inning or the sixth inning. The hitters take different at-bats against you than at the end of the game. Learning that last year and mixing up my pitches, I feel like I’m a better equipped pitcher going forward.
"I feel like I still have a lot left. I have to take care of my stuff and everything else will take care of itself. I think having that experience of having been there, done that, it doesn’t ease it, but it kind of takes that, ‘I have to make it,’ away. I just have to focus on being a good pitcher and getting outs."