LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers infielder Wenceel Perez hasn’t participated in workouts.
He probably won’t play in spring training games.
But he’s a prospect to watch this season.
“It’s really tough,” said Perez, recovering from a back injury. “This is the first time that I’ve gotten hurt. I have been working hard to get to this point, and when you get hurt, it’s tough. When the time comes, I’ll be ready.”
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Perez, a 23-year-old switch-hitter from the Dominican Republic, joined the Tigers’ 40-man roster in November. On Nov. 15, he spent the evening with his family and his cousin, fellow Tigers prospect Cristian Santana.
They were waiting for a call from the Tigers.
For the Tigers, giving Perez a spot on the 40-man roster protected him from the Rule 5 draft this past December. For Perez, a spot on the 40-man roster immediately put him one step closer to his MLB debut.
“I wanted to jump, I wanted to run when I heard that,” Perez said.
With that, Perez received an automatic invitation to big-league spring training.
He felt nervous on his first day in the clubhouse.
“There are veteran players I’ve seen before, like Javy Báez and Miguel Cabrera,” Perez said, marveling at the few All-Stars around him. “Now, I share a room with them. That’s awesome. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable.”
A breakthrough 2022 season allowed Perez to reach his current status. He hit .295 with 23 doubles, 10 triples, 14 home runs, 42 walks (10.3% walk rate) and 61 strikeouts (15% strikeout rate) through 94 games between High-A West Michigan (55 games) and Double-A Erie (39 games).
Perez has stolen at least 13 bases in every season of his five-year minor-league career, peaking at 22 steals in 2021 with Low-A Lakeland and High-A West Michigan. He stole 18 in 23 attempts last season.
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Swing adjustments ignited his development at the plate. He adjusted his hands as part of his load to improve his aerial contact, integrated a toe-tap for a timing mechanism and strengthened his body to hit the ball harder.
“Getting my hands back helped me with my power and launch angle,” he said.
Members of the Tigers’ player development department noticed he started to look in control of his plate appearances. He posted a .914 OPS, .233 isolated power and 143 wRC+ for the SeaWolves, all signs of an elite hitter for that level.
Perez hit .287 with a .914 OPS in 329 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers. He also hit .333 with a .868 OPS in 77 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers.
It could make sense for Perez to return to Double-A Erie at the beginning of this season — especially as he rehabs from his back injury and tries to settle into a defensive position — but if he returns to full health and keeps hitting, he would be on the fast track to Triple-A Toledo.
“He continued to mature,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He has some work to do on the defensive side, but his at-bats got better and better. He started to control the strike zone, and he did damage. He became much more comfortable as an offensive threat, really from both sides.”
Maybe he will play for the Mud Hens out of the gate.
“We got to find the right position for him defensively,” Hinch said. “We’re focused on second base now. But you open eyes when you’re producing the way he did.”
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Right now, Perez needs to get healthy.
He suffered a back injury in Erie last season and played his final game in mid-August. He swings righty and lefty but more from the left side because he faces more right-handed pitchers. All those lefty swings led to pain in his back.
“I’m rotating more on my left side than my right side,” Perez said.
Perez felt healthier in the offseason, but in preparation for spring training, he experienced some setbacks. The Tigers diagnosed him with low back inflammation and provided him with a rehabilitation plan.
He is working through a core stabilization program.
He plans to swing the bat in the second or third week of March.
“As soon as I can get ready, I’m trying to be ready for the season and play hard every day,” Perez said.
His cousin, Santana, is a minor-league camper in Lakeland. They’re spending time together while Perez rehabs and Santana — who controls the strike zone as well as anyone in the Tigers’ system — prepares for an anticipated assignment in High-A West Michigan.
In a couple years, Santana could join Perez on the 40-man roster.
But Perez has other ideas.
“Maybe in Detroit,” he said.
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.