Among the most-criticized pitchers in franchise history, Oliver Perez has become precisely that: history. The Mets completed the transformation Monday morning, releasing him and absorbing the $12 million remaining on his contract.
For the first time since signing a three-year, $36 million deal with the Mets back in 2009, Perez is a free agent.
"When they told me, I almost knew what they were going to tell me," said an emotional Perez. "It's just one of those days. I don't feel great, but I'm not going to quit. I think I've got more career."
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Coming three days after the Mets released second baseman Luis Castillo and his $6 million salary, Perez's release represents the second half of a symbolic break. Like Castillo, Perez is a once-successful player whose salary has long since eclipsed his contributions. The final thread snapped Saturday, when Perez served up back-to-back homers to two career Minor Leaguers in a game against the Nationals.
"They gave me the opportunity," Perez said. "They were fair with me. When I came here, [they said], 'We're going to give you the opportunity to be a starter,' and I didn't do anything great. They moved me to the bullpen trying to be a lefty specialist, and the last game, that was a horrible job."
Despite its quick resolution, the decision was far from impulsive. For more than two years, Perez's relationship with the Mets had been deteriorating.
Months after signing his three-year deal with the Mets in early 2009, Perez reported to camp out of shape and unprepared to pitch for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, let alone for the Mets in Grapefruit League games. Slogging through his worst season as a professional, Perez twice went on the disabled list and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee.
When he returned in 2010, Perez had lost the low-90s velocity that once made him a passable Major League pitcher, earning a demotion to the bullpen in May. After he later exercised his contractual right to refuse a Minor League assignment, the Mets placed him on the DL with continuing right knee issues, where he remained until late July. Upon Perez's return, then-manager Jerry Manuel limited him to six appearances in the final 2 1/2 months, during which time he recorded a 9.39 ERA to finish the year with a 6.80 mark.
The consensus opinion at season's end was that new general manager Sandy Alderson would release Perez, an action that needed ownership approval. But citing a concern about "doing anything rash or reflexive," Alderson instead continued spending a roster spot on Perez, hoping he could help the team as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen.
He could not.
"It was just a confirmation of what the evaluation had been up to that point," Alderson said.
Unlike Castillo, who had a relatively strong chance to make the team, Perez never came close to earning a roster spot. But contrary to the overriding public perception of the left-hander, he did put in countless hours of work toward his goal.
"I think Ollie's a fine person," Alderson said. "I think Ollie made every effort. And I'm happy I got to know him over the three or four weeks that he was here."
Though Perez will remain under contract through this season and will continue to collect regular paychecks, he -- like Castillo, who inked a Minor League deal with the Phillies on Monday -- is free to sign elsewhere. The Mets were on the other side of such a situation two years ago, signing Gary Sheffield for a miniscule salary after the Tigers cut him and the $14 million remaining on his contract. But eating such large sums of money is rare.
Such has marked the decline of Perez, a once-dynamic young pitcher who went 12-10 as a 22-year-old for the Pirates in 2004, striking out 239 batters and walking 81 over 196 innings.
"He was one of the best," said outfielder Jason Bay, who played with Perez in Pittsburgh for four seasons before rejoining him in New York last year. "I guess that's a tough pace to keep up."
Given the declining quality of Perez's performances, his teammates were not surprised to learn of his departure. But for all his faults on the field, Perez was genuinely liked by many within the clubhouse, a regular source of comic relief.
"He had too much pressure on him," said Jose Reyes, his teammate for 4 1/2 seasons. "It's hard to perform at a high level when you have so much pressure over your head."
That said, Perez's tenure in New York was not without highlights. Traded with reliever Roberto Hernandez in exchange for outfielder Xavier Nady, Perez was the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the 2006 National League Championship Series against the Cardinals and was an effective starter in Game 7, earning him the nickname "Big Game Ollie" despite the Mets' loss. His success spilled over into the 2007 and '08 seasons, in which he posted a 3.91 ERA and paced the team with 25 wins, 371 innings and 354 strikeouts. He also led the Mets with 184 walks.
It was enough for then-general manager Omar Minaya to commit long-term to Perez, after top-ranked free-agent starters CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe all signed elsewhere.
Now Perez -- like Castillo and Carlos Beltran, unmistakable symbols of Minaya's tenure -- is gone. He stepped out of the clubhouse for good around 8:30 a.m., leaving an empty parking space next to the one Castillo vacated three days earlier.
"It doesn't feel great," Perez said before leaving, visibly fighting back tears. "I think when you get fired from anywhere, you feel sad. It's not a good moment. You have to be stronger, and my life is not done."