A closer look at the Perry-for-Balester swap

On the surface, the Nationals’ trade earlier today sending right-hander Collin Balester to the Detroit Tigers for right-hander Ryan Perry is a bit of a head-scratcher. But what looks like a straight-up deal of similar pitchers who had hit proverbial dead ends with the organizations that drafted them is actually more of a minute tweak for each club.

Let’s tackle Balester first. The 25-year-old was drafted by the Expos in 2004, and while he showed promise as a starting pitcher early in his minor league career, Balester was converted to relief in 2009. He spent most of the season at Triple-A Syracuse, where he learned that working out of the bullpen wasn’t a demotion but a better use of his talents, and went 0-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 17 relief outings with the Nationals at the end of the season.

Mostly, Balester was an odd man out in D.C., never able to pitch well enough to crack the rotation and decent enough in relief, though he always seemed to be the guy riding the Washington-to-Syracuse shuttle. He had the misfortune of being a guy with options remaining, so he got sent to Triple-A out of spring training before last season. Still, in three tours with the Nationals, he got into 23 games, going 1-4 with a 4.54 ERA. He didn’t pitch poorly, but really did nothing to distinguish himself, even after manager Davey Johnson pleaded for someone to function as a right-handed long man out of the ‘pen. His penchant for yielding the long ball - 31 homers in 167 career innings - was troubling, and his 3.81 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 40 career relief outings weren’t offset by his 62 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.

With no options left, and enough young pitchers in the minors knocking at the door, Balester was again shuffled down the organizational depth chart - not a bad guy to have in reserve, but with the Nats having used his last option, he would have been in an uphill battle to claim a bullpen spot when the team reports to Viera in mid-February.

The 24-year-old Perry, on the other hand, has one option remaining, meaning the Nats will take a flyer on him, knowing that they can move him between the majors and minors next season if he doesn’t impress in spring camp. And as a former first-round draft pick of the Tigers (21st overall in 2008) who flamed out when rushed to the majors with the tag of future closer always preceding his name, Perry has something to prove.

He went 5-6 with 29 holds, two saves and a 4.07 ERA over parts of three seasons with the Tigers, who talked of grooming him for ninth-inning duties, but always seemed to find someone more effective to handle that role. Perry may never fulfill those early career projections, but the Tigers simply ran out of space in their bullpen. After signing Octavio Dotels today, Detroit now has a collection of power arms that includes Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Al Albuquerque and Jose Valverde in the ‘pen. Manager Jim Leyland’s preference is to trust experienced relievers, and he’d lost some confidence in Perry.

While Balester might continue to collect frequent flier miles (his new trip with be from Triple-A Toledo to Motown), Perry’s ability to induce ground balls at a 52.1 percent rate might be a different look than the hard stuff from Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez. The Nats want to improve an already strong bullpen and Perry’s acquisition cushions the blow if free agent Todd Coffey decides to depart Washington.

Balester will be missed - he was a favorite among his teammates, was part of the corps that came through the organization and was liked by the media for his pithy tweets and accessibility through social media. But this is one of those proverbial deals where the trade partners hope a chance of scenery helps out the principles. Balester wasn’t going anywhere with the Nats and Perry’s days with the Tigers were probably numbered.

Alumni report: A couple of former Nationals signed minor league deals Friday. Luis Atilano, who posted a 6-7 record and 5.15 ERA in 16 starts in 2010 before being shelved by elbow surgery, inked a deal with the Reds. He had come to Washington in a 2006 trade with Atlanta for Daryle Ward. The sandwich pick, taken 31st overall in the 2003, made two starts for Double-A Harrisburg in 2011, posting no record and a 13.50 ERA.

The Rangers signed a minor league deal with infielder Alberto Gonzalez and invited him to spring training. Gonzalez was traded by the Nats to San Diego last spring in a deal that brought minor league pitcher Erik Davis and cash. Gonzalez hit .266 with two homers and 47 RBIs in three seasons with Washington.

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