FORT MYERS, FLA. – Come make us better, teams often beg free agents.
Come, and we’ll make you better, the Twins said to Martin Perez.
That got Perez’s attention — and got him in a Twins uniform.
“I was happy,” the veteran lefthander said of his talks with the Twins before signing a one-year, $4 million contract with an option for a second year at $7.5 million. “I felt comfortable to see what they are trying to do for me and what kind of pitcher they think I can be and they say they can help me.”
Many enticements are dangled in front of free agents by teams seeking their services. Like the chance to be on a winning team, a path to playing time or being close to friends and family.
The Twins dangled what General Manager Thad Levine described as their “pitching analytics leadership group” of pitching coach Wes Johnson, assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and senior analyst Josh Kalk.
Levine, the assistant GM at Texas from 2005-16, said that before negotiating Perez’s contract, they requested an audience with him.
In November, Johnson and Hefner got on a conference call with Perez, sharing with him their vision of the pitcher he can be.
In January, as the sides closed in on a deal, they met with him before TwinsFest, breaking down video of his delivery.
Their plan, with input from Kalk, included mechanical tweaks, training techniques as well as pitch usage suggestions.
“Jeremy and I looked at him [on video] a lot,” Johnson said, “and you saw this really dynamic, explosive, athletic pitcher. And then, all of a sudden, the last couple of years he was pitching really to spot the ball and sink it and that is not who he is.”
Johnson and Hefner examined many free-agent pitchers during the offseason, and recognized Perez as someone who could benefit from a couple of adjustments.
“It’s a holistic view of how he was preparing for the games, bullpens, catch play,” Hefner said. “It’s just not simply that he needs to throw more fastballs or he needs more sliders or whatever. It’s really the four days between his starts. What’s his lifting like? His conditioning program? The whole thing.”
Their “pitch” struck the right chord with the 27-year-old. He was coming off a disappointing season during which he skidded to a 2-7 record and 6.22 ERA and spent most of the final weeks of the season in the bullpen. He was 23-23 with a 4.60 ERA over the previous two seasons, but his 2018 performance led the Rangers to decline his option, making him a free agent.
So Perez is all ears. He’s not ready to become a full-time reliever — many teams that contacted him during the offseason wanted him in the bullpen — and said he believes he can help strengthen the Twins’ rotation.
Last season was a mess. He missed more than two months because of a sore right elbow, which he fractured during the offseason when he fell while trying to avoid a bull on his ranch in Venezuela. (He had the bull killed and ate it, by the way, drawing criticism from PETA.)
But he struggled with his slider upon his return. He ended up throwing his fastball 67.3 percent of the time, a career high. He threw his slider 6.5 percent of the time, a career low. He’s also had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in 2014, and feels the combination of both injuries affected him.
“I want to get my breaking pitch back,” Perez said. “With my surgery, I have had a couple limitations with those pitches. I don’t feel like I have the right feel. I am healthy, and I have been working in my bullpens and in batting practice on my breaking pitch. And I believe that everything is together right now to be ready for the season and compete.”
The Twins might have come along at the right point of Perez’s career. He knows Levine from his time with the Rangers. He’s a big fan of former Twins pitching great Johan Santana, and was told good things about the club when he checked around.
And their recruiting pitch tied everything together.
“I have a good relationship with Thad,” Perez said. “When he called me, I called my agent and said this is going to be the team. They are going to be a good team. Get the best deal you can.”