Salvador Perez returns to Royals with long rehab road ahead of him

Royals all-star catcher, Gold Glove winner and team leader Salvador Perez starts the longest season of his major-league career — one in which he’ll be relegated to watching and cheering — and his closest companion for the first part of the season will be a small, red exercise ball that fits in the palm of his hand.

Speaking to reporters at the Royals facility in Arizona for the first time since his Tommy John surgery on March 6, Perez referred to that ball as his “new friend” as he held it in his hands and squeezed repeatedly. Those small hand/forearm exercises signify the first stage of what will feel like a glacially slow rehab process for Perez.

“It’s a long process,” said Perez, who rejoined the team on Tuesday. “I’ve got to be patient. It’s kind of hard to see the guys play and not do anything, as much as I love to play baseball. It’s going to be hard, but I’ve got to concentrate on my rehab and doing the right thing so I can be back next year.”

Perez, 28, is expected to miss the entire season. The Royals signed veteran catcher and defensive stalwart Martin Maldonado to a one-year contract. Perez remains under contract through 2021.

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Perez claimed surgeon Neal ElAttrache told him that he should be able to start throwing from short distances, 30 to 45 feet, in four or five months.

For now, he’s outfitted with a brace that goes from the middle of his bicep to middle forearm, and he’s slowly working to extend his range of motion.

From the day the team announced he’d have season-ending surgery, teammates such as Alex Gordon and back-up catcher Cam Gallagher expected that Perez would be a regular presence around the clubhouse while he went through rehab.

Perez said he’d hoped to be around the team regularly, but he had not spoken with general manager Dayton Moore about whether he will travel with the club during the season.

Searching for a positive spin earlier this month, prior to Perez’s surgery, Moore said he’d be happy for Perez to use the year as a chance for growth and time with family.

“I’m really excited because he gets a chance to really spend great time with his wife and great time with his kids, and maybe step out of it a little bit and just get even a different perspective on life,” Moore said. “He’s been playing baseball his entire life, all year round. Now, he’s going to get an opportunity to reevaluate, assess some things. I think it could be a tremendous positive as well, personally.

“Baseball wise, it’s not what we want. But you’ve got to look at it in a positive way.”

Wednesday, Perez was still not willing to go that far just yet. In his mind, the desire to play still overwhelmed any potential positives of time off.

“A lot of people tell me that,” Perez said about the injury possibly being a positive. Perez, who manages his life around preparing to play a full season, hadn’t quite gained that perspective just yet.

Perez, who was in a fairly jovial mood and joking with reporters, praised the defensive ability of his replacement Maldonado. The two veterans knew each other before Maldonado signed with the club, but Perez expects they’ll become much closer this season.

“I think calling the game, he’s good. Throwing, you guys have seen his arm,” Perez said. “I think yesterday he threw somebody out at second base. I think he’s going to do a pretty good job. And the good thing is we’ve got (Billy) Hamilton and Whit (Merrifield) and (Adalberto) Mondesi, those guys. So he don’t have to worry about these guys (laughing).”

Perez threw out 24 base-stealers in 51 chances last season on his way to his fifth Gold Glove in six seasons. That put him in an exclusive group of catchers with at least five Gold Gloves. He joined Ivan Rodríguez (13), Johnny Bench (10), Yadier Molina (9), Bob Boone (7), Jim Sundberg (6) and Bill Freehan (5).

Maldonado’s AL Gold Glove win in 2017 broke up Perez’s streak of consecutive awards. As far as any good-spirited back-and-forth about Maldonado breaking up his streak, Perez laughed as he said, “We didn’t talk about, not yet but it’s going to come. He got lucky!”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.