The defending world champion Royals have come to terms with catcher Salvador Perez on a five-year, $52.5 million extension that will keep the 25-year-old in Kansas City through the 2021 season. The deal, which comes with a $6 million signing bonus, replaces the three option years remaining on Perez’s current contract—increasing his salary over those seasons from a potential $14.75 million to $20.5 million—and adds two more years for $13 million each, taking him through his age-31 season.
Given that the Royals already had control over Perez through 2019 via that trio of extremely inexpensive club options (which topped out at $6 million for the '19 season), it is difficult to understand the motivation behind this new deal. Perez has undeniably been a key part of the team’s renaissance, helping Kansas City to consecutive American League pennants over the last two years and just the second championship in franchise history. He is oversized and overworked for a catcher, however, putting his ability to remain valuable in doubt despite the fact that he won’t turn 26 until May.
Because his 6’3”, 240-pound frame is such a big target behind the plate, Perez takes more than his share of abuse from foul balls and back swings, putting him at high risk for concussions, the likes of which could force him to change positions and dramatically undermine his value to the Royals. He was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list in August 2013 after taking a foul ball to the head, and given some of the hits he has taken off the mask since then, he seems likely to have played through at least one other concussion since. Perez has also led the majors in games caught in each of the last two seasons, not counting an additional 31 games in the postseason over that span; in the last three years, he has caught 453 games between the regular season and playoffs. That's 54 more than runner-up Yadier Molina, who has suffered a steep decline over that span in both his production and his ability to remain in the lineup. If I were to make a list of All-Stars in whom it would be wise to invest long term, Perez would be near the bottom of the list.
Perez’s performance at the plate raises additional red flags. His OPS+ and on-base percentages have fallen in every one of his big-league seasons, dropping to 89 and .280 last year, respectively. Looking behind those numbers, Perez’s strikeout rates are climbing, and his already miniscule walk rates are declining, resulting in a 6.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year. Perez did hit for more power last year than in the two years prior, setting a career high with 21 home runs, but he drew just nine unintentional walks (nine!) during the regular season, undermining that improvement and rendering him no better than a league-average offensive catcher.
As for the old saw about a quality defensive catcher’s offensive production being largely irrelevant because of the value he provides in the field, Perez may have won his third Gold Glove last year, but there’s little evidence that he was an above-average catcher behind the plate, either. Perez’s rate of throwing out base runners last year was a tick below league average (31% to 32%), but far more significantly, his pitch framing was decidedly subpar, with his framing costing the Royals more than half a win per Baseball Prospectus’ numbers. Even if we give Perez credit for his ability to handle a pitching staff (in terms of pitch calling and his seemingly endless parade of mound conferences), his most significant value to the Royals would seem to be his durability and the fact that he keeps them from falling below league average at the catcher’s place in the lineup.
How much longer do you think that will last? With Perez’s plate approach declining and his body getting more and more beat up every year, I wouldn’t want to bet on him offering even that marginal value into his thirties. His previous contract was ideal for Kansas City, allowing the organization to go year-to-year and giving it the ability to control him at below market value two years past what would have been his scheduled free agency. The new deal not only increases the value of those options by a total of $5.75 million, but also guarantees all three, then adds $36 million for Perez’s age-30 and age-31 seasons—all of which is utterly unnecessary and unmotivated other than as a reward for past performance. Over the last three years, Perez’s Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) has fallen from a career high of 4.1 in 2013 to 3.4 in '14 to 2.2 last year. Following that pattern, he could hit replacement level before those last two years of his current contract kick in, and that’s barring a sudden and traumatic injury or necessary move to another position
Perhaps most perplexingly, this new deal does nothing to address the Royals’ ability to keep their team together past the 2017 season. As things stand, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Jarrod Dyson, Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen, Jason Vargas, Tim Collins and Tony Cruz are due to become free agents after 2017, and off-season addition Ian Kennedy has an opt-out after that year. Not all of those players should be retained beyond 2017, but most of the core of last year’s world championship team is on that list. Given their financial limitations (and the fact that both Hosmer and Moustakas are Scott Boras clients), the Royals have their work cut out in trying to remain contenders. You would think that their resources in the interim would be dedicated to trying to win in 2016 and '17 or trying to retain the key players on that list, but Perez’s new extension unnecessarily spends $37.75 million without addressing either goal.