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Perez sure to garner free-agent interest

SEATTLE -- Driven out of New York after failing to live up to a hefty contract and back to the depths of Double-A after almost a decade of Major League service, Oliver Perez faced a crossroads in his professional life last year.

All he wanted to do was pitch.

But first the left-hander had to reinvent himself, and he did so well enough in 2012 that he now stands as a potential reliever of interest as one of the Mariners' four available players when free agency opens for all teams on Thursday at 9 p.m. PT.

Perez had an ugly divorce with the Mets, a relationship that ended with declined performance, relegation to the bullpen, injury and eventually his unconditional release that left the Mets still owing $12 million on the three-year, $36 million deal he'd signed in 2009.

So after playing in the Nationals' Minor League system in 2011, Perez played winter ball in his native Mexico, converting himself into a full-time reliever. His performance was enough to warrant a Minor League contract from the Mariners, who eventually recalled Perez in mid-June.

Despite the continual adjustments that came with the new territory of relief pitching, Perez's return to the Major Leagues was successful. The lefty turned into one of the better comeback stories in baseball in 2012, as he posted a 2.12 ERA in 33 appearances for the Mariners and became a reliable veteran for skipper Eric Wedge in a bullpen brimming with youth.

"I felt pretty good this year," Perez said at the season's conclusion. "I got a little bit tired because this was my first time doing this, this year. It was kind of a new role for me. But I would like to be a reliever again, because normally you get the chance to pitch every day. I can be a starter again, but right now I feel good in the bullpen."

Perez had a good enough season that he'll surely garner some offseason interest, with the Mariners among the interested clubs. Seattle has exclusive rights to re-sign him before all free agents hit the open market Thursday night.

"I love to play baseball," Perez said. "I know if a team needs a starter, I'm there because I would love to do anything for my team. Starter, reliever, I don't know, close a game. Maybe pinch-run. When I'm in the game, I just want to win. No matter what, I just want to do a little bit for my team."

But, when pressed, Perez admitted he's really taken a liking to the bullpen role.

"It's kind of more exciting, because we always show up in tough situations, and sometimes when you're in that moment, that can change [if] you're going to win and you're going to lose the game," he said.

The Mariners other free agents are starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, reliever George Sherrill and catcher Miguel Olivo.

Starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who signed a one-year deal with Seattle last year, has a stipulation in his contract that gives the Mariners' exclusive negotiating rights until Saturday. If the team doesn't reach an agreement with him by then, he will be granted his release and will also become a free agent.

Seattle Mariners, Oliver Perez