This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.
It feels like ages ago, what with the lockout stretching on, but November 2021 was a busy month for the Orioles. With the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire on December 2, the Orioles had limited time to tinker with their 40-man roster. The team acted quickly and drastically. Within the month, 11 players were sent packing (including onetime first-rounder Hunter Harvey, to the surprise of many), four were activated off the IL, six minor leaguers were shielded from the Rule 5 Draft (which still hasn’t taken place), two new pitchers were picked up, and one infielder (Lucius Fox) was claimed … and then just as swiftly, released.
So, like I said, busy. One of the new faces in the bunch: Cionel Pérez. No sweat if you haven’t heard of him. Before Pérez was signed to the 40-man on November 24, he’d faced the Orioles exactly once in his career: on June 7, 2019, in Houston, when he struck out two batters (Keon Broxton! Renato Núñez! … pinch-hitting for Chris Davis!) over three innings in a game the Astros eventually won in extras, 4-3.
The lefty isn’t big by any means (5’11” and listed at a whopping 162 lbs.), but the once highly-touted pitching prospect out of Cuba has velocity on his fastball, which lives around 95-97 mph, to go with a sharp slider and a changeup.
As a 20-year-old, Cionel Pérez found his way to the majors in 2016 on an international free agent deal with Houston. You know what that means, right? One of the early guys to scout Pérez was none other than O’s GM Mike Elias, then Houston’s director of amateur scouting.
One odd thing about that deal: the talented Pérez initially signed for $5.15 million, but the Astros voided the deal due to concerns about his physical. More negotiations ensued, and eventually he signed a contract worth $2 million.
Still, Pérez didn’t spend much time kicking around in the Astros farm system, leaping up three levels in 2017 to end the season with Double-A Corpus Christi. He hopped up three more levels the next season, making his MLB debut on July 11, 2018. Pérez spent 2018 bouncing between the majors and Triple A, pitching just 11.1 innings for the Astros while allowing five runs on six hits for a 3.97 ERA and 6.34 FIP. Far from eye-popping. However, the 22-year-old was dominant during his stretches in Triple A that year, posting a 6-1 record and 1.98 ERA in 16 games while accumulating 83 strikeouts in 68.1 innings.
Did the voided-contract episode augur long-term problems for Pérez with injury? We don’t know, but indeed, the lefty did spend stretches of 2019 and 2020 on the shelf and in the minors. In 2019, he made just five appearances for Houston, allowing 11 hits in nine innings for a none-too-fine 10.00 ERA and 6.66 FIP. He spent about a month of the shortened 2020 season on the 60-day IL before getting called up down the stretch to make seven appearances. He finished the year with a career-best ERA of 2.84 with eight strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Still, even though the Astros made the postseason that year, Pérez was not added to the Wild Card, Division Series, or NLCS active rosters.
By that point, the writing was on the wall, and in January 2021, Houston dealt Pérez to the Cincinnati Reds for a catching prospect. That didn’t work out so great for Pérez, either. Bouncing between the majors and the Reds’ Triple-A Louisville, Pérez finished 1-2 with a 6.38 ERA in 25 appearances for Cincinnati out of the pen. Based on that resume, the Reds decided to cut Pérez on November 24, 2021, and the Orioles claimed him immediately after.
So, who is Cionel Pérez? The career numbers don’t exactly jump out at you: a cumulative 6.04 ERA in just 50.2 innings pitched over parts of four seasons. Oh, and let’s not forget: a 6.2 walk rate. That’s bad. Like, Félix Bautista and Tanner Scott bad. But without their gaudy strikeout totals.
If we’re going to look on the bright side, Pérez’s stats in the minors look better: his 3.4 BB/9 is OK, and so are his 3.60 ERA and 1.328 WHIP. In 2021, even while struggling with Cincinnati, Pérez had a decent season in Triple-A, putting up a 3.26 ERA, 1.286 WHIP, and 3.9 BB/9 over 31 games.
Now, can he replicate that at the MLB level? So far, there’s not much evidence to think so. Maybe for Mike Elias this is little more than an old-timey reunion with a once highly thought-of prospect he helped to sign and whose potential he still remembers. Pérez may just turn out to be a depth piece, another name in the endless roster churn that started under the Elias regime in 2019 and seems likely to continue in 2022. One more problem for Pérez is that he’s out of options, which prevents the Orioles from putting him on the Norfolk shuttle and calling him up as needed.
The best-case scenario is that Pérez tames his walks and keeps striking hitters out. That, at least, is one thing he’s done consistently well in his short MLB career. His 9.2 K/9 rate is solid, and in 2021 he paired a fastball ranked in the 87th percentile in velocity with a slider with a 40% whiff rate. We know the Orioles like pitchers who can miss bats. Besides, the lefty slots in nicely to an Orioles bullpen that posted an MLB-worst 5.70 ERA last season, and which is preciously short on southpaws (besides Pérez, there is just Paul Fry and Tanner Scott, whose 2021 seasons gave little reason for confidence). If nothing else, we know this a roster that can be counted on to give overlooked players (especially pitchers) a shot to stick.
End-of-year prediction: This is a tough one. Ordinarily, given the fact of Pérez’s short track record and scant success, plus his being out of minor league options, I’d say there’s slim-to-no chance he finishes 2022 in the majors. However, the team is paper thin on left-handed relievers right now. If they can find one on the free-agent market, then maybe Pérez gets the boot before spring training starts. But it’s hard to predict how that market will look after the lockout is lifted, given that a delayed start to spring training, if not the season, now appears inevitable. Maybe the safest bet is that Pérez flashes something in the first half of the season and gets flipped for a prospect. I’ll hazard a guess that he finishes 2022 in the majors, albeit perhaps not an Oriole.
Tomorrow: Bryan Baker