PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Rafael Arroyo could have spent his offseason at the beach near his Los Angeles home. Instead, the 28-year-old Arroyo devoted his winter to helping a friend in Culiacan, Mexico.
At Oliver Perez's request, Arroyo joined the southpaw for the offseason, catching bullpen sessions and taking notes during Mexican winter league games, while offering feedback to Perez and feeding information back to Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen.
And Arroyo believes the preferred piñata of New York Mets fans should not be written off.
"I saw a lot of positive things," Arroyo said by telephone. "His strength was back up. His velocity was back up. Just seeing him pitch down there, you saw the confidence build back up, which was a good thing. That to me was the most important thing. And that was the goal -- to go down there and get some work done, get some innings in -- because last year he didn't pitch much for many reasons. We went down there and we had success in that sense.
"I think the velocity, and just his pitches overall, got better. His slider was sharper. And just the physical strength. He was able to lift and do things a little heavier. I know he had a hard time coming off of knee surgery the year before. He had some limitations. The success was his overall strength, his arm strength, which he lacked the year before, and he had very, very positive numbers against lefties [.163 opponent average]. He did. Lefties, they had no chance."
Perez reported for duty in Port St. Lucie on Sunday and found the complex closed for the weekend. He returned to the facility Monday and found himself in a meeting with manager Terry Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson.
Collins seemed to suggest Perez's best shot of making the team would be as a situational left-hander in the bullpen, citing the career .226 batting average of left-handed hitters against him. Yet when Perez emerged from the meeting, Collins and Alderson had acceded to Perez's wish to get a shot at making the team as a starting pitcher.
If it's not working out, Perez will be moved to left-handed relief later in the Grapefruit League season. And if that's not working out, or if minor league roster invitees Tim Byrdak, Taylor Tankersley and Mike O'Connor are simply better, Perez simply will be shown the door and the Mets will eat his $12 million contract.
This much is clear: Alderson made 40-man roster maneuvers throughout the winter and placed other players on waivers while Perez and similarly maligned second baseman Luis Castillo (owed $6 million) clogged up spots. So Perez is going to get a look -- and not a quick heave-ho -- in spring training, even if the likelihood is that he and Castillo never see Opening Day in Miami on April 1.
"I mean, I have all the numbers. I've heard all the stories. Now I'm going to make my own evaluation," Collins said. "No disrespect to anyone else and what I've heard about him. I believe that they're all good baseball people. But, you know what? People do change sometimes. Ollie, he pitched winter ball when he didn't have to. This guy has got 11, 12 years in the big leagues and pitched winter ball. He didn't have to do that. He wants to find it. He wants to regain what he was. And I salute that.
"I said, 'Here are my feelings. Maybe you need a fresh start [as a reliever]. Maybe you need a different role.' He said, 'Well, if that's what you want me to do.' And I said, 'No, no, you have to want to do it. You've got to buy into it. If you don't, it's not going to work.' So I said, 'If you think you can make this club as a starter, by God you'll be given that opportunity. And then as we get into spring training we'll see what the results look like.'"
It's clearly hard to have sympathy for a pitcher making $12 million this year, and who did not want to accept a minor league assignment last year. But in a sense you have to feel badly for Perez. Collins' predecessor Jerry Manuel used Perez only six times during the second half of the season last year. And everyone knows the treatment Perez received at Citi Field from the rightfully frustrated fans.
"I think naturally it got to him a little bit," said Arroyo, who was not retained by the organization, and who has joined Cal State-Northridge's baseball program as a volunteer assistant. "But from what I saw, he stayed positive. He tried to throw every day and tried to stay sharp and he never once gave in that I saw. He tried to stay as positive as he could in that situation, but it's tough. Overall, I thought he kept a positive state of mind and still tried to work."
It's tough to figure how Perez can fit on this team. Chris Young and Chris Capuano should claim the final two spots in the rotation if they perform as expected. And while Perez has good numbers against lefties, it's hard to envision relying on someone who would be prone to walk Ryan Howard or Chase Utley in a critical seventh- or eighth-inning spot. Perez walked 32 in 39 2/3 innings in the Mexican league.
"I didn't come here to spring training thinking I'm going to be released," Perez said. "I came here to do my job, to work, to get better. If something happens, I'm not going to be the only baseball player that got released or got traded."