Salvador Perez stumbled out of the weight room and huffed to his locker. He prefers early-morning workouts, so his exhaustion was conspicuous at 7:50 a.m. on an otherwise sleepy Sunday. He tucked his chin to his chest for a moment and rested.
Perez drained a half pint of bottled water, binned the crushed container and shuffled across the clubhouse to greet new arrival Pedro Ciriaco. Perez is “bubbly,” one Royals coach said, an inviting presence, a leader even at his young age. He understands his responsibility both on the diamond and in the clubhouse. After hugging Ciriaco, Perez plopped back into his chair and pondered his hopes for the 2014 season.
“I just want to be safe,” Perez said. “That’s why I talk to God every night. Just keep me safe. I would like to do the best I can do in the game. Just let me be safe.”
His team likely issues similar invocations. Perez, an All-Star in 2013, may be the Royals’ most precious asset. He turns 24 in May. The team controls him through 2019, and owes him only $7 million guaranteed. He anchors the team from behind the plate as the rare catcher who blends defensive savvy and burgeoning offensive potential. His right arm is a cannon, his frame is inviting and his athleticism is underappreciated.
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“You can’t find a catcher that can hit and throw like he can,” manager Ned Yost said. “They’re just not out there anymore. They’re really, really hard to find.”
When Perez tore his meniscus in 2012, the team suffered during his three-month absence. They cannot afford a similar calamity, and have fashioned a spring-training schedule designed to keep him fresh before the season begins. He caught 129 games in 2013 and established himself as one of the game’s best. Protecting Perez is paramount for the team’s success.
Even before Major League Baseball outlawed home-plate collisions for 2014, members of the organization spoke with Perez about limiting contact at the plate. When Perez played for Tiburones de la Guaira in his native Venezuela this winter, the team asked him to only play first base. General manager Dayton Moore says Perez still sneaked into one game behind the plate. Yost speculated Perez caught only four or five games. Perez says it was closer to eight or nine.
“I think I felt more tired at first base,” he cracked.
His exuberance is evident even in the desert heat. As the first day of workouts wound down, bench coach Don Wakamatsu told a few veteran catchers they could finish early. Perez received that suggestion, Wakamatsu said, “just going on that whole line of ‘let’s make sure we don’t overwork Salvy.’ ” But Perez stayed. He wanted to finish with his contemporaries.
“You’ve got to regulate that,” Wakamatsu said.
In the early days of camp, the catchers only throw every other day. Wakamatsu is also keeping a close eye on Perez’s technique. He searches for subtleties: The tension in a player’s body, an alignment that places excessive pressure on the hips and knees, a proximity to the plate that makes the catcher a target for foul balls. The intention is improving his efficiency.
Thus far, Wakamatsu has little reason for concern. What excites Yost is Perez’s potential. He is still so young, Yost explained, and he already is good enough to be an All-Star and a Gold Glover. “He’s way ahead of the curve,” he said. “He’s past the curve.”
Yet there is room to grow. Perez hit 13 homers and 25 doubles last season, but Yost feels his power could increase. Perez walked in only 4 percent of his plate appearances in 2013, which Yost also believes can improve.
As a defender, Yost asks only that Perez “maintains his consistency and focus” during the long, arduous season.
Even if he remains stagnant, Perez’s value is still immense.
He ranked fifth among catchers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement in 2013. As long as he stays on the field, the Royals will benefit.
“We’ll go as far as Salvy can take us,” Wakamatsu said.
“And it’s going to be a long way.”