It’s almost a cliche in baseball that every year nearly every camp produces a surprise. Someone who comes from the fringe and makes the roster.
That veteran reliever Joel Peralta could be — could be — that player in the Mariners’ camp … well, maybe that’s not such a surprise at all.
Peralta turns 40 in two weeks and has built a career on defying the odds.
“I’m grateful that they’re taking a look at me early in camp,” he said. “I showed up early and ready to go. I told them, “Use me however you want to. Because I’m feeling good, man. Really good.”
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Three scoreless one-inning outings offer early validation.
“He’s not afraid,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s been through the wars, and he knows how to make a club and go about his business. He’s been a nice addition in our clubhouse as well. He’s off to a good start.”
Peralta is just one year removed from ranking among the American League’s more reliable middle relievers. He led the majors with 296 appearances over a four-year span from 2011-14 at Tampa Bay.
A trade after the 2014 season sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers and, initially, everything went well. He opened the season with seven scoreless outings and racked up three saves, a win and a hold.
But Peralta strained his neck in mid-April, which soon sapped his strength. His shoulder felt weak and, before the month ended, he landed on the disabled list for eight-plus weeks.
When Peralta returned, he wasn’t the same. He compiled a 4.34 ERA in 33 appearances over the remainder of the season — not good enough, the Dodgers judged, to merit his $2.5 million contract option for 2016.
He became a free agent, but no club stepped forward with a major-league offer.
“Yeah, I would say the teams were scared by me getting hurt last year and the kind of injury it was,” Peralta said. “It was the only time in my career that I’ve been in the DL, but I’m not a kid anymore. That counts.
“But that’s OK with me. I’m used to showing up in spring training and making the team. That happened in Tampa. I had to make the team every year. So I’m kind of used to this.
“It’s on me.”
Forced to accept a minor-league contract, Peralta landed with the Mariners in large part because Nelson Cruz, a fellow Dominican, sold him on the idea.
“Nellie and I were talking when I wasn’t getting offers,” Peralta recalled. “He said this was a good place to be. That the team was good. They treat players well, so that was one of the reasons.
“Nelson told me to come here if I could sign here, and I’d like it.”
The Mariners, in the process of overhauling an ineffective bullpen, had already acquired a number of relievers seeking bounce-back years. In signing Peralta to a minor-league deal, they saw a low-risk move that just might pay off.
“He’s not a spring chicken,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “But turn the dial back one year, and he was one of the most durable and functional setup guys in the big leagues. He’ll take the ball whenever you need it.
“There’s not a lot of flash to it, but he’s got a wicked split-finger (fastball) that has always served him very well. And it’s nice to have the ability to tap into veteran leadership, especially in the early going.”
Peralta began his career as an outfielder in the Oakland organization in 1996, but lasted just over a year before getting released. He went back home, found a coach and turned himself into a pitcher.
The Angels signed him in February 1999.
Peralta bounced through the minors for five-plus years before reaching the majors in 2005 and compiling a 3.89 ERA in 28 games. But the Angels lost him in a waiver claim after the season to Kansas City.
Peralta spent three years with the Royals, then one in Colorado and one in Washington before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent after the 2010 season.
It was there, with the Rays, under manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey, that Peralta became a reliable workhorse.
“I owe those two guys so much,” he said. “They tell you they believe in you and let you pitch. Hickey is a great pitching coach, and playing for Joe is the best. They have so much confidence that they give you confidence.”
Peralta still has that confidence. He believes he can pitch his way into the Mariners’ bullpen and, with Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook slowed by strained back muscles, he figures to get an enhanced opportunity.
Because Peralta is a major-league free agent who agreed to a minor-league contract, the Mariners must let him know five days before the season whether he will make their 25-man roster.
For now, at least, Peralta doesn’t want to ponder a possible choice between retirement and continuing his career in the minors.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s a tough call because, in addition to the travel, it’s the minors. It’s hard to be there. I’m just hoping to make this team because I know I can still pitch and help these guys.”
AOKI IN CENTER
The Mariners’ projected roster means they need someone to serve as a backup in center field to Leonys Martin. That likeliest candidate is left fielder Nori Aoki, who started in center Tuesday against the Indians in Goodyear.
“I think he’s very comfortable there,” Servais said. “Looking at his track record in Japan before he came over here, he was primarily a center fielder. I think a multiple-time Gold Glove winner in Japan.”
Aoki did play regularly in center field over eight seasons with Yakult from 2004-11 and played 19 games in center for Milwaukee in 2012. But he logged only nine innings in center in 2013 and hasn’t played there since.
“We’ve talked to him about the importance of being able to step over there,” Servais said. “I think he’s kind of looking forward to it.”
The Mariners also are experimenting this spring with infielder Luis Sardinas in center field.
“We need to have other options out there,” Servais said. “That’s for sure.”
While Kyle Seager batted second in three of his four spring starts, Servais suggested the Mariners are still ticketing Ketel Marte for that duty.
“I don’t want to push too much on him,” Servais said, “but I like where Ketel Marte is right now. The speed feature at the top is really a nice element to add in front of the core of our lineup.”
Servais prefers to keep his “speed guys together.” With Martin and Aoki batting ninth and first, putting Marte at No. 2 bunches the lineup’s best runners in from of their middle core of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Seager and Adam Lind.
LEE’S COMFORT ZONE
First baseman Dae-Ho Lee admitted he’s finding a comfort zone after spending last week dealing with unexpected work-visa issues, which forced him to make two trips to Vancouver, British Columbia.
“It was a little bit of a (distraction) to have the (work) visa status,” he said, “but I got it cleared up. It’s OK now. I feel good. I feel healthy.”
Texas outfielder Shin-Soo Choo noted Lee’s growing confidence after a conversation Sunday prior to the Mariners’ 7-3 victory over the Rangers in Surprise.
“He’s got a lot of power,” said Choo, a South Korean countryman and longtime friend. “He’s always been a good hitter. I know he can hit here. I know he really wants to be here, too.”
Lefty reliever Charlie Furbush reported no day-after problems after a 25-pitch session Monday of throwing to hitters in live batting practice. He seems likely to make his spring debut later in the week. … Servais said right-handed relievers Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook “are still going to be down for a little while.” Both are battling strained latissimus dorsi muscles and are expected to be re-examined within a day or two. … Through six games, Servais said the Mariners’ defensive stats are plus-2: turning seven likely hits into outs but yielding five hits through vacated spots.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners