As the centerpiece of the 2017 Justin Verlander deal, the inability of right-hander Franklin Perez to stay on the mound, let alone develop into the pitcher that was hoped, is at the center of their flawed rebuilding effort. He remains a strange enigma. Perez has never had surgery, and yet he’s been unable to stay on the mound for almost four years now.
Perez was apparently healthy and able to get some work in at the alternate training site in 2020, and he pitched in spring training this year as well, marking the longest period of apparent arm health since the Tigers acquired him. However, as the returns from his brief look at Grapefruit League action made clear, this remains a project with little chance of panning out.
The Venezuelan born Perez was originally signed by the Houston Astro as a 16 year old in 2014. Initially a strong-armed third baseman, the Astros quickly moved him to the mound and from the start he displayed control and feel for his secondary offerings far beyond most in that age bracket. Combined with strong legs and a well built, six-foot three-inch frame that foreboded high end velocity as he developed, there was every reason to think the Astros had landed a gem in Perez.
Perez dominated the rookie levels, and then stormed Class-A as an 18-year-old. That year he struck out 27.1 percent of hitters with a very low walk rate and just one home run allowed in 66 2⁄3 innings of work. Pitching against hitters almost uniformly much older, Perez looked like a possible future star the making. That success continued in 2017 as the Astros aggressively promoted him through High-A and then to the Double-A level by mid-summer. The strikeouts didn’t come as easily, and the contact against him got harder, but he still had a very successful 2017 against much more experienced competition. The Astros shut him down with a mild lat strain, the first sign of trouble, after 86 1⁄3 innings of work, and he’s never been the same since.
The Tigers closed the Verlander deal on August 31, 2017, with Perez as the top prospect in the package the Astros sent to Detroit. At the time Perez was the third ranked prospect in the Astros system according to FanGraphs, who put a 50 future value (FV) grade on him. These things are an art as much as a science—though that is changing rapidly—but essentially, Perez would have checked in between 50-100 on any top 100 prospects list at the time.
As BYB’s managing editor, I’ve got to step out of the third person and take the hit for this one. We pulled Perez from our 2020 preseason rankings entirely because he’d managed just 27 innings of High-A level work in 2018-2019 combined. Some found that a bit overly aggressive, but there was just nothing to say about him. If you can’t pitch, it’s rather difficult to grade or rank you as a pitcher. Had there been an elbow or shoulder surgery involved, one could hang in there, as blame would fall on an issue that required surgical intervention. However, ongoing lat issues that made it impossible for him to pitch, but have no surgical remedy, is a lot murkier territory.
When Perez was reportedly healthy and throwing at Toledo in 2020, the hope was that he’d finally gotten beyond the issue. And so we added him back into the list prior to spring camp opening, and hoped he and the Tigers had finally figured something out. Unfortunately, not only was his fastball down from his prior 92-94 mph into the high-80’s in camp, but it appeared that no changes had been made in his delivery, specifically his high arm slot, to try and find a way around whatever structural issues continue to give him too much trouble to stay on the mound. So, in retrospect, Perez should be far lower on this list, if not off it again.
At his best, Perez featured very advanced control, throwing 92-94 mph from a high arm slot that gave all of his pitches a tougher plane for hitters into the strikezone. He had a good curveball, and a very promising changeup with a lot of depth and deception. The two secondary pitches still looked reasonably good in isolation this spring, but with the fastball velocity down into the 88-91 mph range, both are obviously diminished for not having the velo to play against.
Perez pulls his head off line to create space for his arm slot to work almost straight up and down through release. That move often causes control issues, but Perez has the strong lower half to retain his balance and repeat it consistently. The question is whether making an adjustment there would take some pressure off the lat and shoulder structures. It’s frankly a little surprising that no adjustments have been attempted to this point, but he also hasn’t pitched enough in recent years to work on something like that.
So, the final analysis is that Perez still looks to have the stuff and control to develop into a major league reliever, but he’s going to have to rebuild his arm strength to get there. However, staying healthy and pitching consistently enough to rebuild his abilities is an extremely dubious proposition at this point.
2021 assignment: High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Perez is slated to open the season with the Whitecaps, and it will be interesting to see how they try to deploy him. Whether they give him multiple innings at at time in an attempt to build arm strength and durability, or whether they simply have cashed their chips on him as a starter and view him purely as a one inning reliever, this season is presumably his last chance to restart his development. Now 23 years old, the Tigers desperately want to stick with Perez in the hopes of getting something back out what appears a disastrous trade return for their long-time ace. If he can’t put together a complete season even in diminished capacity as a reliever, it’s time to give up entirely.
Here’s a brief look from his March 15th appearance against the Toronto Blue Jays.