Salvador Perez sits in front of his locker wearing latex gloves. He is massaging a new catchers mitt, spraying oil every once in a while and rubbing the leather just so. This is a small detail, a tiny detail, and one of a hundred such things that he will do before the day is over.
He is the starting catcher of the World Series champion Royals, a role that defines his life, and a man who has come to define much of the team’s identity. Even without big offensive numbers, some throughout the industry consider him one of baseball’s most irreplaceable players. Just 25 years old, already he is a three-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner.
Perez is a franchise’s dream: talented, happy, competitive and — this part is especially important for the small-market Royals — vastly underpaid. Perez knows this. The team knows this. Everyone knows this.
And now, in the first spring training after Perez went public with his desire for a new contract, there are signs he may be getting a new deal before opening day.
“I want to be George Brett,” Perez says. “I want to be like Frank White, like Alex Gordon. One of those guys. Because this team gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues.”
Negotiations are impossible to predict, but there is an openness from the team’s side that didn’t exist before.
As an organization, the Royals credit much of their success to a relentlessly supportive culture for their players, and rewriting a lopsided contract for one of their most important players would be a tangible and undeniable sign of their commitment to maintaining that. Rafa Nieves, Perez’s agent, said that “there’s been some movement” and he has “a 50-50 feeling” that a new deal will be done by opening day.
That the sides are even holding serious talks is surprising to some in the business. Perez signed a contract in 2012 that put him under club control, including three option years, through 2019. Already, that contract has likely cost him somewhere between $7 million and $8 million.
The Royals own Perez’s rights for four more seasons, including 2016, for a total of about $20 million. Had he not signed the contract in 2012, he would likely be making about $7 million this year through arbitration, and at least $10 million next year before hitting free agency. These are all just estimates, and when Perez signed the deal nobody knew he would become so valuable so soon, but he is scheduled to make around $35 million less than if he’d gone year-by-year.
“He left so much on the table in his present deal,” said Nieves, who became Perez’s agent after that contract was signed. “He can’t afford to leave a lot more on the table in his next deal. So that’s where we’re at.”
Other contracts have been negotiated with similar years of club control remaining — Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun come to mind — but never after an extension that turned out so one-sided in the team’s favor.
The negotiation, then, requires not just good faith from the Royals but also some sympathy and a self-driven motivation to do right by a player who has done right by them.
Strangely, the Royals themselves are on the bad end of an extremely lopsided television contract that also runs through 2019 and is currently paying the club less than half its market value. There are no signs of a renegotiation of that deal, because in business, a great way to sign a second bad deal is to renegotiate the first bad deal without leverage.
The whole tone of negotiations between the Royals and Perez must be different in order to be productive. It must be more about cooperation and less about each side trying to “win.” It’s worth mentioning, then, that before these talks turned serious, Nieves says manager Dayton Moore told him the Royals wanted to work something out not because they owed it to Perez, but because it was the right thing to do for him.
“If David Glass was cold-blooded,” Nieves said, “he could say, ‘You know what? I have him four more years, so let’s talk again in three years, see where he’s at with his knees and back and performance.’ But that’s not what they’re saying, and we appreciate that.”
As it stands, Perez is set to enter free agency at age 29, the same age when Brian McCann signed a five-year, $85 million contract. But there are concerns about how Perez — one of the game’s biggest catchers — will hold up physically.
He plays a historically high number of games, his offensive numbers tend to decline in the second half, and some scouts doubt whether he can remain behind the plate into his 30s. If Perez’s body requires a switch to first base or even DH, his value drops dramatically. The scenario Nieves describes, of the Royals waiting this out, is exactly what many executives around the game would suggest.
“Especially a small-market team,” said one rival executive. “I can’t think of a deal that’s been done like that, with a small-market team ripping up a contract that’s in their favor.”
One possible structure of a new deal would guarantee the option years, add a few seasons at something close to market value, and spread the new money around throughout the contract including a signing bonus.
But a negotiation like this — even with both sides working faithfully — is still difficult. Not just because of a lack of precedent, but because the current deal is complicated with how salary escalators and performance bonuses kick in.
For his part, Perez says he is trying to stay out of the talks. He’s in touch with his agent, who knows the specifics of what Perez wants, but would rather not know too much because negotiations can sometimes turn ugly.
He hardly adjusts a beat of his glove massaging as he talks of this. He signed the first contract, so he has to live with it. He brings up the Royal for Life thing again, because he says that’s important to him.
“You want me to be mad or something like that?” he says. “Be mad, be angry? No, they’re going to make me happy if something happens, but I’m happy no matter what, you know what I mean? So you roll with that. You never know. But I’ll play hard no matter what. I’ll play hard, I’ll be happy, and I’ll help my team win.”
The feeling behind those words, when you think about it, is actually why the Royals are interested in giving him a new deal.