We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you the breaking news that the Astros have just signed the 20-year-old Cuban starting pitcher Cionel Pérez. So let’s take a look at the newest islander to find a home down in Houston.
Career in Cuba
Pérez stared as a teenager in the provincial series in Matanzas, and was brought up to the Serie Nacional club as a teenager as a 17-year-old in 2013. Pérez was solid, if unspectacular as a rookie for the Cocodrilos, starting 11 games and relieving in 2, pitching to an impressive 2.70 ERA, and a much less impressive 1.605 WHIP. He surrendered 32 walks in 56.2 innings and struck out 25.
The next year, playing the full season for Matanzas, Pérez improved drastically. He started 18 games, relieving in two more, and accumulated only 90 total innings. He lowered his ERA to a league-leading 2.50, and this time accompanied it with a 1.255 WHIP more befitting of such a low ERA **note that pitcher WHIP is generally higher in the Serie Nacional than in the major leagues**. He upped his strikeout total to 75, yielding a 7.7 KK/9, which is quite impressive considering the low strikeout rate in Cuba (even Aroldis Chapman only managed 10 KK/9 in Cuba). He continued to have some trouble with walks, though he did cut his BB/9 from 5.1 to 3.3, but control troubles are not unexpected from such a young pitcher.
In addition to his two seasons with the Cocodrilos, Pérez caught on in a few performances with the Cuban 18-and-under national team, and even was named to the big club for the 2015 Serie del Caribe, where Cubans took home the gold medal, but Pérez did not appear for the Nacionales in that tournament. In general, Pérez played very little with the national team, so we must evaluate him primarily based on his Serie Nacional performance.
Following his second season with Matanzas, Pérez departed the island in May of 2015 in order to pursue his goal of playing Major League baseball.
Build, Stuff, Repertoire, and Projection
Pérez stands a rather diminutive 5’10’’ and was, as of his last weigh-in in Cuba, measured at about 150 lbs. While it is not unreasonable to expect an 18-year-old to put on additional weight and muscle, Pérez is unlikely to ever develop the kind of power build of someone like, say, Jake Arrieta or Felix Hernández. Compared to many Cuban pitchers, Pérez’s delivery is downright conventional. While it includes the expected twist at the top of the leg kick and the variation in arm angles, it is fairly streamlined in terms of high leg-kicks, distracting feints with the arms, or too many other moving parts. Observe Pérez pitching below with the under 18 team just before his defection.
Or, from a more familiar angle, take a look at Pérez pitching for Matanzas against Granma in 2014.
In terms of stuff, we can see why so many MLB teams were interested in Pérez. In Cuba, his fastball sat generally in the low 90’s and touched up to 93. According to scouting reports since his departure, he has upped the top end of his fastball velocity to 95 mph, and it is not out of the question that, as he gets older and stronger, he may regularly sit in the mid-90’s. Neither his curveball nor his slider were perceived as being strong plus pitches in Cuba, though reports are that his slider has improved into being an average to borderline plus pitch. As discussed in the previous article, Pérez, like many other Cuban pitchers sporadically threw a forkball while on the island but has been developing a changeup in his time away from Cuba. His potential as a middle- or top-of-the-rotation starter likely rests on the extent to which he can refine such a pitch.
Pérez is a highly regarded young player, and would have been one of the mainstays of the Cuban National Team for years to come had he remained on the island. His velocity, comparatively smooth delivery, and left-handedness all bode well for his transition to the Major Leagues, but it is clear that he is not yet ready for Major League competition. As in Cuba, where he was eased in at the under 18 level, the Astros will be well served to give Pérez time in the minors to acclimate both to professional caliber hitting, as well as to his new life in the States. Unlike fellow countryman Yulieski Gurriel, Pérez is not a long-time veteran of the National Team. He has not traveled extensively with the team, played in the United States before, played in a Major League stadium before, or lived in a foreign country.
For these reasons, fans in Houston should expect it to be a while before Pérez takes the mound in Minute Maid Park, but there is also good reason to suspect that when he does, the Astros will have found themselves with a quality pitcher on the hill.