If it hasn’t already sunk in for Royals fans, it may be more than a little jarring that the club goes into the season knowing Salvador Perez won’t be its everyday catcher for the first time since 2012.
Word of Perez’s elbow injury came out at the start of the month, and his surgery took place more than 20 days ago, but even Royals general manager Dayton Moore admitted the notion really struck him during Wednesday’s workout at Kauffman Stadium on the eve of opening day.
“It kind of hit me again today when I was watching him in the dugout with his family,” Moore said of Perez. “It’s going to be a challenge, but every successful team, every successful organization, every successful family has to overcome adversity.”
Perez will be present for Thursday’s game against the White Sox, and he’ll pick up the Gold Glove he earned last season as one of the best two-way catchers in the game, but Perez won’t be behind the plate. Tommy John surgery will keep him sidelined this season, and veteran defensive stalwart Martin Maldonado takes over the reins.
Maldonado, 32, had an abbreviated spring training because he remained an unsigned free agent until joining the Royals on a one-year deal after Perez’s surgery. Maldonado signed on March 11, nearly a month after pitchers and catchers reported.
“There was doubt, a little bit,” Maldonado said of remaining unsigned for so long. “There wasn’t much doubt, but I had it right around the end before I signed. I was happy to have a chance here. At least I made it in time for camp just to be ready for opening day.”
Last season, he batted .225 with a .276 on-base percentage and a .351 slugging percentage with nine home runs, 18 doubles and 44 RBI. He hit career highs with 14 home runs and 19 doubles while playing in 138 games in 2017.
The Royals won’t be counting on him to replace Perez’s bat in the middle of the lineup, but Maldonado, a Gold Glove winner, comes highly regarded for his work with pitchers as well as his outstanding catch-and-throw prowess of cutting down base runners.
Since the start of 2012, his 37.7 percent caught stealing percentage leads major-league catchers who’ve played at least 400 games. Last season, Maldonado’s 45.5 percent caught stealing ranked second only to Perez (47.1 percent) in the American League.
In 2017 with the Los Angeles Angels, where he caught 138 games, Maldonado snapped Perez’s consecutive streak of American League Gold Glove awards at four in a row.
“I know that Salvy is the guy here,” Maldonado said of taking over the starting job. “He’s been helping me a lot. We’ve been talking a lot to each other. I just come here to do my job as best I can.”
Despite the shortened spring training, Maldonado said he feels good physically, has been happy with the quality of at-bats he had in spring training and was able to catch enough to get his legs under him.
He’s already developed a comfortable level with the pitchers both in games and in side sessions during spring training. Maldonado showed that ability when he used a mound visit to settle down an admittedly frustrated Jakob Junis during a two-run inning against the Cubs.
Homer Bailey’s best outing of the spring came with Maldonado behind the plate. Afterward, Bailey quipped about them getting on the same page so quickly.
“We were walking in and I said, ‘Hey man. You know what I’ve got. You’ve got enough hits off me over your career. Just help me out,’” Bailey said.
Getting a feel for the entire pitching staff will be no small task, and it’s a part of his game that he takes seriously. It’s also a big part of the attraction the Royals had to Maldonado.
“Not only do you have to learn the person, you’ve got to learn exactly what he can do,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You know, what has he got — fastball, curveball, slider — what does he throw for strikes, what does he throw for strikes in a crucial situation. What can he do? What can he think that he can do but can’t do? Those are all things that take time to learn on different guys so that you can help him get through games.”
That’s also where Perez will come in handy. Perez, whose locker in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium is adjacent to Maldonado’s, spoke with Maldonado within a day of Perez having rejoined the team in Arizona during spring training.
“You get a lot from a guy like that that’s been here for many years, been calling pretty much all the guys,” Maldonado said. “You use anything, especially where you can go, what the pitcher can do best, all that stuff. It’s always nice to see it behind the plate, but when you’ve got a guy that played that many games, you talk to him.”
Last season, Maldonado got traded mid-season from the Angels to the Houston Astros. That experience may have worked in his favor this spring.
“I thought it was easier,” Maldonado said of getting to know the Royals staff. “After I switched when I got traded, it made it easier for me when I came here. Actually, I had more time here to get to know those guys, what they had, than in Houston. It was a little bit of a process of learning those pitchers. I think that trade made my late signing better.”
Nobody on the Royals staff knows Maldonado better than relief pitcher Wily Peralta. Maldonado were together in the minors as well as the majors as part of the Milwaukee Brewers organization from 2007-16. They’ve remained in touch, and Peralta was one of the first to know when Maldonado agreed to join the Royals.
“He’s really smart behind home plate,” Peralta said. “He’s always watching video of the hitters. He’s a guy that pretty much after you know him, you’re going to trust him when he’s behind the plate because he’s really smart, he knows what he’s doing and he’s paying attention to all the details behind home plate.”
So how does Maldonado compare to Perez behind the plate?
“They’re kind of similar,” Peralta said. “Salvy is really smart behind home plate. He’s a guy that’s got five Gold Gloves. There’s a reason for it. I mean, he’s good behind the plate. They’re kind of similar, the way they call the game.”