March 8, 2013

Perez’s absence for WBC turns Royals’ spotlight on battle between Hayes, Kottaras

The prize awaiting either Brett Hayes or George Kottaras (pictured) certainly seems appealing. There might not be a better part-time job this summer in Kansas City than serving as the backup to Royals workhorse catcher Salvy Perez.

The prize awaiting either Brett Hayes or George Kottaras certainly seems appealing. There might not be a better part-time job this summer in Kansas City than serving as the backup to Royals workhorse catcher Salvy Perez.

The job description calls for, maybe, one starting assignment per week. Occasional late-inning activity is possible.

Not much else.

Manager Ned Yost is already wondering whether he can limit Perez to 140 games. (A point of reference: Arizona’s Miguel Montero led all catchers last year with 136 starts.)

“I have a hard time not playing him,” Yost admitted. “Our goal is to try to win every day. That’s nothing against anybody else, but it’s just you want him in the lineup. So it’s probably going to creep more toward 150 games.”

That’s a staggering number.

No catcher has started 150 games since Gary Carter registered 151 in 1982 for the Montreal Expos. It’s only been done eight times in big-league history. Ironman Jason Kendall topped out at 149 in 2008 while playing for Yost in Milwaukee.

“There will be times when Sal will need a day off,” Yost said, “but you can’t DH him. He’s going to need days off from catching, but we’ve got the best DH (Billy Butler) in baseball.”

Hayes and Kottaras are 29-year-old newcomers acquired through offseason waiver transactions. Both have previous experience as backups — Hayes over the last four seasons with the Marlins; and Kottaras with the Red Sox, Brewers and A’s since 2008.

“This is nothing new to me,” Hayes said. “I’ve been in this situation a number of times. I just enjoy coming out here and batting, playing and fighting for a spot. It is what it is.

“It’s nice to be out there on the field.”

Competition between the two is particularly keen this week because Perez is playing for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. How long he stays away depends on how well Venezuela plays.

Perez could be back in camp as soon as Monday, although the tournament runs through March 19.

So each day matters more to Hayes and Kottaras than most players.

“You can only control your own actions and not put pressure on yourself,” Kottaras said. “It’s still spring training, where you’re still trying to work on stuff and try and get ready for the season.

“But at the same time, you’re trying to win a position as well. It’s kind of a fine line of what to do when you’re in that situation. Right now, I’m just trying to get better and do what I can.”

There are other catchers in camp, but the competition quickly funnels to Hayes and Kottaras because both are on the 40-man roster and out of options. That means neither one can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers.

Adam Moore and Manny Pina, in contrast, are in camp as non-roster invites and can be simply reassigned to the minors without going through waivers. That puts both at a severe disadvantage in the effort to break camp with the big-league club.

The Royals might lose Hayes or Kottaras through a waiver claim by picking the other one to be Perez’s backup. But they risk losing them both if either Moore or Pina wins the backup job.

After scrambling last spring to compensate for injuries to Perez and Pina, the Royals seem unlikely to squander any more depth than necessary.

“We wanted to add as much depth as we could,” general manager Dayton Moore acknowledged. “They’re all a foul tip away (from injury).”

The pre-camp scouting reports projected Hayes and Kottaras as a contrast in strengths.

Hayes is a right-handed hitter whose career average is just .217 for 143 games, but he generally draws solid marks for catch-and-throw skills. Kottaras offers pop from the left side, with 24 homers in 249 career games, but is more limited on defense.

“That’s what the word was,” Yost agreed, “but that hasn’t proven to be true so far this spring. Hayes has surprised me. He’s swinging the bat very well.

“Like Kottaras has surprised me. He was supposed to be an offensive catcher, but he’s done really well behind the plate. Give credit to both of those guys. They’ve both had a nice spring to this point.”

Hayes was four for 14 with two homers in nine games prior to his scheduled start Friday afternoon against the Indians. He also had three walks and scored six runs. Kottaras entered a scheduled Friday night start against Colorado at four for 13 in seven games with three walks and a double.

Yost points to defense as his chief priority for a backup catcher, although a left-handed bat with punch would provide a nice plus to a bench whose other elements are likely to be outfielder Jarrod Dyson and utility infielders Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada.

“He’s got to be defensive-minded, first,” Yost confirmed. “He’s got to be able to handle the defensive side of it. Whatever we get offensively is going to be a bonus. This is a guy who won’t just get an occasional start. It will be more than that.

“There will be times when we’re in the seventh or eighth inning, and Sal is leading off. He gets on, and we’ll pinch-run for him. Those will be tight games. We’re not going to pinch-run for Sal if it’s not a close game.

“That’s why defense is going to play a premium in that position. We’ll see how it plays out. It’ll go right to the very end.”

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