Chances are the opportunity to acquire Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez in your league was there for the taking in 2012. Coming off an impressive debut in 2011, Perez was sidelined for the first half of the season after suffering a devastating knee injury in the spring. It's likely the 22-year old backstop was either drafted and dropped following the news of the injury, or he was ignored altogether, as it's not common strategy to hold onto a backup catcher in standard leagues unless you have multiple DL spots.
Perez was a late-season call up in 2011 and produced right away, hitting .331/.361/.473 with three home runs, 21 RBI and 20 runs in 158 plate appearances. Upon returning from injury in 2012, he backed it up by hitting .301/.328/.471 with 11 home runs, 39 RBI and 38 runs in 305 plate appearances.
Despite missing the first half of the season, Perez finished as the 18th best catcher on ESPN's Player Rater, topping J.P. Arencibia, Russell Martin and Alex Avila, and not far behind Brian McCann, Mike Napoli and Jesus Montero.
But if you combine Perez's first two partial seasons, it comes out to a .311/.339/.471 triple-slash line with 14 home runs, 60 RBI and 58 runs in 463 plate appearance. In terms of fantasy, those numbers would all be top-15 among catchers in 2012, and would easily push Perez above McCann, Napoli and Montero on the Player Rater, right around the No. 10 spot.
Make no mistake about it: Perez's .311-average at the major league level is legit. He's hit at every level he's played at, and more importantly, he's improved at every level, peaking with a .333-season at Triple-A. If you look at Perez's career BABIP numbers, you'll notice a lot of crooked numbers. That's because Perez is the owner of an 88.7-percent contact rate and a 10.2-percent strikeout rate, both well above league average. He doesn't draw many free passes with a career walk rate of 4.1-percent, but that's been the case throughout his entire minor league career, where he had a K:BB ratio of 134:71 in 1,344 plate appearances. The low walk rate isn't something to worry about, given his past success with it.
Given the constant shuffling of the catcher position after the elite guys, Perez's consistency throughout his professional career bodes well for projecting him going forward as a reliable fantasy option. In my mind, after Joe Mauer, there is no clear cut No. 2 catcher in the AL because the guys who give you the most power -- guys like Napoli, Carlos Santana and Matt Wieters -- can easily tank in batting average. Perez, on the other hand, seems like a logical lock for a .300-average with home runs in the low- to mid-teens and solid run production. The upside, for now, is not overly great, but there's little downside too.
One questionable aspect of Perez's game is his power. In the minors, he never hit more than 10 home runs in a single year, but his home run total did grow considerably from one year to the next. Perez's career-best 11 homers and .170 ISO in 2012 represent a positive continuation of that trend. He's not likely to eclipse 20 home runs in 2013, but one or two years from now we might be having a different discussion.
A comparison I often come across that I want to address is Perez and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Molina is oft-regarded as the best all-around catcher in the game, defense included. To be mentioned in the same sentence with Molina is a testament to Perez's potential, and Perez's defense has already been praised by many. Looking at the two players, each player possesses a similar skill set. Molina, like Perez, has a high contact rate and a strikeout rate around 10-percent. Perez, however, seems to be far ahead of Molina as a hitter. Where it took Molina nine years to reach his true hitter potential, Perez is already on the brink of matching some of Molina's numbers. It took Molina until his eighth season to reach double-digit power numbers, as well as a combination of 50 runs and 60 RBI. Perez hit 11 home runs in 2012, and with a full season, should have no problem surpassing 50 runs and 60 RBI on an ultra-talented Royals team.
Perez, at 22, is already on the verge of becoming one of game's best backstops. In AL-only leagues, he's a legit top-5 option. In mixed leagues, I think he's a top-10 option.
The only thing holding Perez back from being considered a top-5 threat right now is his questionable power and his speed -- he's never stolen more than one base in a single year, but that's often one of the last parts of a catcher's game to appear, if it appears at all. Look at Molina, who had four stolen bases in his first five years and 33 in his last four. I'm not saying the same will happen for Perez, but it could.
Last February, the Royals signed a then 21-year old Perez to a five-year extension that paid a guaranteed $7 million, with a club option to extend the deal three more years for an additional $26.75 million. At the time, Perez appeared in just 39 games. Give the Royals credit. They knew what they were doing. I have the opportunity to secure Perez in a keeper league for $4. Lock him up if you have the chance, because he's only going to become a pricier commodity.
My 2013 prediction: .300/.335/.470 with 15 home runs, 60 runs, 69 RBI and 1 steal.
Statistics from FanGraphs.