TORONTO – Juan Perez sat at his locker stall Friday night, compression sleeve on his left arm, white towel pressed to his lips, blankly staring forward. Occasionally someone would pass by and give him an encouraging pat. Bullpen coach Pat Hentgen stopped on his way through the clubhouse to offer a hug.
The Toronto Blue Jays reliever looked like a man pondering his future after initial diagnosis of an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his left elbow, although further tests revealed the ligament wasn’t completely torn, and the team said Tuesday he’ll try rehabilitation until October in the hopes of avoiding surgery.
At 34, the prospect of successfully returning to the majors after Tommy John surgery isn’t a particularly promising one for any pitcher, let alone a journeyman enjoying sustained success at the big-league level for the first time.
Should he need ligament replacement surgery, it’s very possible his last pitch in the majors was ball one to Brandon Moss in the seventh inning of Friday’s 14-6 loss to the Oakland Athletics. It was his 55th pitch of the outing, and left him flexing his fingers afterwards.
“He was sad, he was crying a little bit,” said Esmil Rogers, who spent some time comforting Perez on Friday night. “That’s the kind of person he is, he wants to be in the game every day. It’s a bad thing that happened. I hope he will be back and nothing bad comes up in the MRI.”
A partial tear may be better than a full tear, but it doesn’t make his future with the Blue Jays any less murky.
They have no obligation to him beyond covering any medical expenses related to the injury for the next two years, according to Regulation 2 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and at season’s end they may very well cut ties with him, or release him and re-sign him to a minor-league deal. No point in tying up a 40-man roster spot on someone who may never help you again.
Their approach will largely depend on how his rehab plays out, which is the cruel side of the business for players like Perez, who live on the fringes of the roster doing the dirty work needed to keep stars fresh.
Their status with any given team is year-to-year, there is minimal investment in them so their capital is limited, and they’re easily forgotten and replaced.
Signed as a minor-league free agent Dec. 11, 2012, Perez gave the Blue Jays far more than they could have expected. He made 19 appearances, logging 31.2 innings while posting a 3.69 earned-run average inflated by a couple of bad outings.
After he arrived in the big-leagues at the end of May, he ran off a streak of 22 scoreless innings over 14 outings that ended July 24 against the Dodgers.
“He pitched some big innings for us, at up a lot of innings for the bullpen, he’s always going out there for two or three innings at a time, I can’t say enough good things about him,” bullpen coach Pat Hentgen said. “Quiet guy, good teammate, he was intense, wanted to win.”
Added Rogers: “Unbelievable job, unbelievable person. Quiet guy, but inside the lines the numbers talk.”
The Blue Jays were Perez’s eighth different organization since signing with the Boston Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1998. His 19 games out of the Toronto bullpen were his most in five big-league stints.
With a herky-jerky delivery that sent parts of his body darting in every direction, an elbow injury should come as no surprise. But that didn’t make the sight of him on the mound repeatedly spreading his fingers, or at his locker contemplating it all, any less sad.
“A lot of things go through your mind, obviously you’re thinking it could be career-ending,” Hentgen said. “Today with the technology and the surgeons are so good I think he’ll be back. If it is Tommy John, you’re looking at 12 or 13 months, and if it isn’t, maybe eight or nine months.
“He bounced around from team to team and finally was somewhat getting established here. It’s just unfortunate. He’s a great guy, he did a great job for us.”