Royals got more than they bargained for in catcher Sal Perez

07/14/2014 6:37 PM

07/15/2014 9:23 AM

On the day he became baseball’s best bargain, Salvador Perez called his mother. Yilda Diaz devoted her adult life to raising her only son, and on Feb. 27, 2012, Perez felt he could finally return the favor.

The Royals had offered him a deal that Perez felt he could not refuse, not after only 39 games in the major leagues. The below-market package guaranteed him $7 million across five seasons and kept him under team control through 2019. The concept of immediate financial stability far outweighed any consideration of future earnings.

“Where we’re coming from, it’s hard,” Perez said. “It’s hard because we know about money, but we don’t have good houses in Venezuela. My mom didn’t have a really good job.

“When they give you an opportunity, for your life, to be safe, to try to move here, I think you look around at what you had before, and say you have to do it.”

When he inked pen to paper, Perez received security. The Royals received an extended tenure of control over a player who has blossomed into a two-time All-Star, a multifaceted talent who leads all American League catchers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement during the last two seasons.

Perez will start behind the plate for the American League in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Target Field in Minneapolis, and he appeared at ease during Monday’s media day.

At 24, he figures to be a fixture at this event each summer. Perez has become a beloved figure amongst his peers, renowned for his outgoing personality, his passionate approach and his good humor.

Earlier in the day, Perez hugged Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and apologized again for striking him with a line drive in March. When a reporter asked if Perez was ever mistaken for a celebrity, he answered Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. Seeing his name in the American League’s starting lineup, listed with players such as Derek Jeter, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano, inspired Perez to say “Wow,” and shake his head.

“That’s means a lot for me, for my family,” Perez said. “To see me play in that game, that will be awesome.”

Perez will make a $1.5 million base salary in 2014. Among the 81 players honored in this All-Star Game, only 19 will receive a smaller base. Yet the beauty of the contract lies within its length. Of those 19 All-Stars, six are in the early stages of long-term deals that will exceed the $7 million guaranteed to Perez.

Asked about Perez during the festivities here, rival executives struggled to find a comparable deal. Tampa Bay inked Evan Longoria to a six-year, $17.5 million contract that began in 2008, but later tacked on a $100 million extension. Milwaukee enacted a similar scenario with Ryan Braun when his eight-year, $45 million agreement ballooned to include a $105 million bump.

The executives offered as examples Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who is midway through a five-year deal worth $10.28 million. Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley will earn $25 million the next four seasons. Before he became an MVP candidate, Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez signed a four-year contract worth $28.3 million.

Bargains all, these deals pale in comparison to the Royals’ situation. Perez can earn a total of $26.75 million if he hits all of his incentives through 2019. The base salaries for the three options total $14.75 million. To put that total in perspective: The Phillies must pay fading slugger Ryan Howard $10 million after 2016 just to avoid employing him the next season.

Yet, for a budget-conscious organization such as the Royals, the offer did represent something of a risk. Signed out of Venezuela for a bonus worth about $65,000, Perez resided beneath the radar in the team’s prospect armada. Baseball America never considered him one of the game’s top 100 prospects. The Royals trusted their instincts and scouting acumen when they locked him up.

Invited to his first spring training in 2011, Perez announced himself in a way that displayed his unique blend of skills. First baseman Eric Hosmer can still recall a sequence from an intrasquad game. Perez smoked a pair of doubles off the wall. The second ignited a reaction from first-base coach Rusty Kuntz.

“If he keeps swinging like that,” Kuntz yelled to members of the team’s brain trust seated nearby, “he’ll make the team right now.”

The next inning, Hosmer continued, Jarrod Dyson reached base. Dyson prepared to swipe second.

“And then he threw out Dyson,” Hosmer said. “I was like ‘Holy (heck).’”

“His overall ability was off the charts,” added Alex Gordon, who sat on a podium between Perez and closer Greg Holland on Monday.

Perez’s financial situation was insecure. He grew up in Valencia, an industrial hub located on Venezuela’s northern coast. As a youth he played with a tiny boy from nearby Maracay named José Altuve.

Altuve was always the smallest player on the field. Fueled by plates of Yilda’s arepas, Perez was one of the biggest.

“I always knew he was going to be an All-Star,” Altuve said.

Altuve never experienced a growth spurt, but he still developed into a productive second baseman. He will represent the Astros in Tuesday’s game. Last summer, Altuve agreed to a deal worth $12.5 million that could run through 2019.

His old friend can understand the impulse. Perez can become a free agent when he turns 30. At that point, he said, he’ll worry about a more lucrative deal.

When he thinks back to the day he signed, he insisted he has no regrets. He may have left money on the table. But his mind was eased.

“To me, it wasn’t that hard,” Perez said. “Because I just had two months in the big leagues when they tried to give me that money. I didn’t have to wait. I just said ‘Yes.’”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

Long-term advantage

Royals catcher Salvador Perez will make a $1.5 million base salary in 2014. Among the 81 players honored in this All-Star Game, only 19 will receive a smaller base. Yet the beauty of the contract lies within its length. Of those 19 All-Stars, six are in the early stages of long-term deals that will exceed the $7 million guaranteed to Perez.

Player, team, position

2014 base salary

Long-term contract

Jose Altuve, Astros, 2B

$1.25 million

due $12.5 million through 2017

Anthony Rizzo, Cubs, 1B

$1.25 million

due $41 million through 2019

Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks, 1B

$1.1 million

due $32.05 million through 2018

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals, 3B

$1 million

due $52 million through 2019

Mike Trout, Angels, OF

$1 million

due $144.5 million through 2020

Julio Teheran, Braves, RHP

$800,000

due $32.4 million through 2019

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