Benchmarks are how Franklin Perez measures his baseball life in 2020. By the day. By the week. By the month. And by the year, this year especially, weird and disorienting as it has been.
Another reference point for a 22-year-old, right-handed starter who offers such tantalizing promise, arrives this week: Perez will throw against batters at Fifth Third Field in Toledo. It will be the first time he has squared up against hitters since mid-July when he had a summer-camp cameo at Comerica Park that didn’t go particularly well.
If he shows some of that old velocity that was missing six weeks ago in Detroit, everyone will feel better. Much better. A man who two years ago was 39th on MLB Pipeline’s list of top 100 prospects will at least hint that he’s back after two years of shoulder and lat-muscle issues no one saw coming when Perez was shipped to Detroit, exactly three years ago, in an earthquake of a trade that made Justin Verlander an Astros ace and soon a world champion.
“I want to do things at a very good pace, with no rush, so I don’t have any setbacks,” Perez said last week during a phone conversation, aided by Tigers Spanish-English translator Carlos Guillen. “But I feel very good, very strong. The velo (velocity) is right there. I’m throwing hard. I’m just working now on consistency.”
At the same time, Perez concedes he’s probably at “80%” of his normal pitching capability. And that would mesh with what the Tigers have been seeing at Toledo.
“I don’t want to say he’s going slow, but we’re making sure every step is a healthy one,” said Dave Littlefield, who oversees Tigers player development. “He’s been solid. We’re just trying to work him progressively through the year. Franklin Perez is a hard worker going through some normal routines. It’s a conservative, customized approach.”
Perez throws four pitches — five if you care to consider he wields both four-seam and two-seam fastballs. Until a lat muscle began derailing him 2½ years ago, Perez threw those pitches so well that he stood to be the grand prize in Detroit’s midnight-deadline deal with the Astros that basically delivered Houston a 2017 World Series parade.
The lat, which is short for latissimus dorsi, is the upper body’s largest muscle and in Perez’s case attaches to his right throwing shoulder. Why it suddenly became in 2018 a stubborn and miserable saboteur isn’t clear as Perez fights his way back into potential prospect stardom.
He pitched in only seven minor-league games in 2018, and only twice in 2019, as the lat and shoulder aches ruined two years that might otherwise have ticketed him for Detroit.
This year has been a happier story. No real physical ills for a native Venezuelan who is 6-foot-3, 197 pounds.
“In fact,” Perez said, “my shoulder has been super-good.”
He would also acknowledge that he isn’t yet in prime-time form. The lack of fastball zip knocked him out of intrasquad games he otherwise would have been working this month at Toledo. It put him on a regimen of sideline bullpen sessions, building strength and range crimped by that two-year layoff.
“I’m focusing basically on my fastball,” Perez said. “I want to get the arm speed that I know I can have. My secondary pitches have been very, very good, which is what I’ve been working on improving with my coaches (A.J. Sager, Juan Nieves, Dan Hubbs).”
But it all begins with his four-seam fastball. Neither the Tigers nor Perez say they have any current radar-reads on his four-seamer. What they know is that unless his primary fastball is back to that mid-90s plateau, he’ll have a tough time sufficiently spinning his two-seamer, slider, curveball and change-up.
“I don’t pay too much attention to velocity,” Perez, adding this qualifier: “I do know I should be in the same (mid-90s) range mentioned.”
Before he showed up at spring camp in 2018, Perez not only was a star on MLB Pipeline’s top-talent list, he was No. 1 on The Detroit News’ top Tigers prospects chart.
He was only 19 when the Tigers got him from Houston, along with two more kid talents, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers. Perez at that point had been bumped all the way to Double A after shining at Single A: 2.84 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 15 games at Quad Cities in 2016, and 2.98 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and .191 opposing batting average in a dozen games at Buies Creek in 2017, all before he was bumped to Double-A Corpus Christi later that summer (seven games, 3.09, 1.38).
If the health continues, and if, even incrementally, strength — and sauce on his fastball — build during a patched-together schedule crafted by COVID-19’s wrath, the Tigers and Perez will consider 2020 a happy prelude to what could and should be a back-to-form starter in 2021.
At least that’s the plan. And to all parties that’s also no stretch for a man 22, who doesn’t turn 23 until December.
Perez meanwhile lives a baseball player’s coronavirus-constrained life in Toledo. He and wife Alejandra have an apartment at, yes, the same complex at which most of the Tigers’ Toledo taxi squad resides.
He is not sure what will happen this autumn. Nor are the Tigers. Major League Baseball has yet to determine if, and where, MLB teams might have the extended fall instruction camps teams ideally want to convene following a summer when there were no minor-league games.
Perez knows this: He and Alejandra will return to Orlando, Florida, at whatever point 2020’s formal training schedule ceases. Orlando is where Perez was housed a year ago when he was commuting to Lakeland, Florida, and to the TigerTown complex where he would rehab and work out as he healed from his lat miseries.
The trips to Lakeland will continue, he says, once the offseason — to the extent there will be an offseason — arrives.
“I don’t want to take a lot of breaks,” Perez said.
He understands what’s at stake. He understands also his celebrity profile, which is what a top Tigers prospect assumes for fans glued to what might be percolating on the farm. Until his shoulder misbehaved, this was a pitcher who was expected to star at Comerica Park. No later than this season.
“Obviously, I know the fans want to see me,” Perez said. “People have sent me nice messages, and I want to be there (at Comerica Park) when fans can yell and cheer. I’m thankful for all the fans reaching out.
“And I know that, with the injuries, my name hasn’t been hyped as much. But life puts you on a path, God’s plan, and the idea is to make all of this a learning process.
“No one wants to be injured. But I also believe that at any moment I’m going to be 100% healthy. And to be able to throw at Comerica Park. And all the big-league parks.
“I didn’t get the call-up this year, but I’m looking forward to getting it next year. I’ll do my best, if not this season, to make next season my year.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.