February 23, 2008 3:25 PM
Thursday's hearing to determine Oliver Perez's 2008 salary was the first time the Mets had gone to arbitration with one of their players since 1992. Perez won, meaning that he will make $6.5 million this year (as opposed to the $4.725 million the Mets wanted to pay him). I wasn't surprised by the outcome - after all, a team that hadn't done this in sixteen years was up against a player represented by Scott Boras. (Then again, based on information in the Mets.com article on the hearing, I should have been a bit more surprised - Mets assistant GM John Ricco has a lot of experience with arbitration cases from his time with the league office, and Boras's winning percentage in arbitration is below .500.) Whatever was said by both sides during that hearing promises to pale in comparison to the showdown that will occur some time next winter.
Perez will be a free agent after this season, and unless he completely falls on his face this year, he's going to get big money (keeping in mind who his agent is, he may get big money even if he does fall on his face). Despite his sometimes-shaky control and the occasional walkfests associated with it (he walked at least 5 batters in 7 of his 29 starts last year), a young left-hander with Perez's strikeout abilities (career 9.47 K/9, has never had a season below 8 K/9) is a valuable commodity, and if Gil Meche got $55 million over 5 years, I can easily see Boras setting the asking price for Perez at $70-75 million over 5 years.
Whether Perez will be at the center of a frenzied bidding war is an interesting question. His extreme flyball tendencies make him a poor fit for teams that play in smaller parks and/or suffer from subpar outfield defense, and after the failures of some big free-agent pitchers who were poorly suited to their surroundings (Eric Milton and Great American Ballpark, Jeff Suppan and the shaky Milwaukee defense, just about any pitcher not named Kenny Rogers that the Rangers have signed in the past decade), I'd imagine that GMs are paying more attention to such issues now than they did even a few years ago. Obviously, the Mets are a team with the tools to get maximum value out of Perez, but what other teams can say the same thing? The one that immediately jumps to mind (San Diego) has the most pitcher-friendly home park in the majors and is the team that Perez began his career with, but they're a low-payroll team and don't seem likely to spend that much money on a pitcher when they already have the formidable 1-2 punch of Jake Peavy and Chris Young.
The Mets will have some holes to fill next year. Perez is just one of three starting pitchers hitting free agency (Pedro and El Duque are the other two), Carlos Delgado's 2009 option doesn't seem likely to be picked up, and there's a good chance Moises Alou will retire after this season. Fernando Martinez may be ready to replace Alou by 2009 and Pedro has already expressed a desire to remain with the Mets beyond 2008, but trying to hold on to Perez will still be an important part of next year's Hot Stove. The Mets just have to hope that the teams where he would be a good fit don't have room in their budgets for him and that the teams that can afford to shell out the money to pay him are scared off by his flyball tendencies.
(I just wrote a column about next offseason before the first spring training game has been played this year. If my parents are reading this, right now one of them is beaming with pride and the other is laughing ruefully.)