Rays feel Perez on verge of stardom
Big things ahead if speedster can improve bunting, lefty hitting
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Fernando Perez can do some amazing things on and off the field.
Perez's well-documented past as an Ivy Leaguer sets him apart from most off the field. Of course, that's what attending Columbia University and earning a degree in American Studies and Creative Writing is supposed to do.
Meanwhile, Perez's calling card on the field is speed. And he can do some amazing things with those wheels. Joe Maddon recently marveled at one of those amazing things.
"Last year, he hit like .700 bunting from the left side at Triple-A," said the Rays manager, shaking his head in disbelief.
Indeed, amazing, but there's just one problem: "So far he has not been as good [bunting] here," Maddon said.
Maddon said the problem is not of a physical nature, rather he believes subconsciously Perez feels he has to be quicker or more deceptive when he bunts at the Major League level.
"It happens with all young guys," Maddon said. "Remember, he has not played that long, coming from where he has. Bunters want to run before they bunt the ball -- especially the fast guys. ... You see so many guys pulling out and their body moves before the bat. The bat has to move first and then the body moves."
Maddon noted that Perez has perfectly executed the bunt during drills this spring.
"He was like 49 out of 50 the other day on the practice field," Maddon said.
Games are different, though.
"You see the third baseman in close and you feel like you have to be deceptive," Maddon said. "You don't. Just put it down in a good spot and run.
"And when he really gets comfortable with that, he will do that. He's going to do that. All of a sudden that's going to click and he'll know that's exactly the pace he has to utilize."
Perez smiled when Maddon's remarks were relayed to him. Behind the smiles, he understands the critique and understands he needs to change.
"[I] just have to keep playing with it, you know," Perez said. "It requires a lot of mental coaching, 'Do this, do that.' Sometimes you do it right, sometimes you don't, [it] calls for a lot of trial and error."
Critiques aside, Maddon clearly is fond of Perez.
"He's a different kind of player," Maddon said. "He's an interesting type of player. I like to interact with him on a daily basis. He's a blank canvas in many respects."
Perez wowed with his speed during the 2008 postseason and Maddon coveted him as an ace in the hole on his bench. He knew that once he inserted Perez into the game, good things were likely to happen, like they did against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Perez entered a wild contest as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the 11th with the score tied. Perez reached third with one out and when B.J. Upton lifted a shallow fly ball to right field, it was no contest -- the Rays won, 9-8.
|"He's a different kind of player. He's an interesting type of player. I like to interact with him on a daily basis. He's a blank canvas in many respects."|
|-- Rays manager Joe Maddon|
Perez did well in the spotlight, and he did more than just display his wheels. Forgotten in the Rays' big-game archives from 2008 is how he doubled and scored the winning run in a 5-4 win over the Red Sox on Sept. 9 at Fenway Park, a game considered by many to be Tampa Bay's biggest win of the year.
Perez hopes to provide such moments for Tampa Bay on more of a regular basis in 2009. He is in competition to be one of the team's five outfielders, though the chances of that look remote given the fact that the Rays are still grooming him to be an everyday player. Refining his skills as a switch-hitter is a part of that process -- he's a natural right-hander.
"I'm looking at this guy, if everything goes right for him, he can be an everyday Major League player," Maddon said. "If it doesn't go right, he is a fourth or fifth outfielder.
"What I'm saying is if the left side really comes along, and he's a legitimate switch-hitter. And you see how his base-stealing sills have gotten better. And his outfield play has gotten better. Now the one component that will permit him to be [an everyday player] is hitting from both sides with consistent contact."
If Perez does become the left-handed hitter they want him to be, Maddon concluded: "We might get somebody really special out of this."
So in a sense, it's a compliment to Perez that they Rays still want to look at him as an everyday outfielder. The tough thing for Perez comes with his desire to be in the Major Leagues.
"Some days, it's like you know what the right thing to think is," Perez said. "It doesn't matter what team I'm on. You want to be the best player that you can be. Of course, I think a lot of guys would say, 'I'd rather sit on the bench [in the Major Leagues].' It depends on what your situation is like. For me, I think I'm just about ready, though."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.