The offseason is officially underway in Kansas City and while there are plenty of exciting baseball games yet to be played (say hello to everyone, Michael Taylor), the Royals will not be a part of any of them. And with there only being so many angles to be taken on Dayton Moore’s impending free agent exodus, you could say that Royals content isn’t exactly at a fever pitch. At least not for a few weeks.
Jeffrey Flannagan, however, did compile his scheduled mailbag and one interesting question was brought up.
Someone tell me why Salvy can’t play first base? We’ve seen that transition many times. Is there something in his game preventing that?— Andrew Brandt (@ABrandt42) October 9, 2017
Catchers moving to first base isn’t uncommon and with Sal coming off of his best offensive season since 2013, it might be in the Royals best interest to save his legs. However, while Flanagan thinks this move will ultimately happen, he doesn’t think it will happen soon.
Salvador Perez's transition to first base likely will happen someday, but as a perennial Gold Glove winner and arguably the best defensive catcher in the league, Perez is too valuable behind the plate right now.
Flanagan is correct in his logic here. While Perez’s 27 home runs in 2017 were a career high, he still had a negative offensive runs above average according to Fangraphs, in part due to his complete lack of on-base skills. The power is a bonus, but his value is from his defense.
However, the argument could be made that playing catcher full time is part of the reason why he has never had that breakout season offensively. His career high in wRC+ (for a full season) is just 106, which he set back in 2013. He notched a 101 mark this season, the first time he had gotten above that league average mark of 100 since 2013.
And while it wasn’t as pronounced as in prior seasons because of his torrid first half, he once again struggled in the second half, producing a .230/.261/.431 slash after the break. Those numbers aren’t news to anybody who has followed Royals baseball since Sal came around, because he has had a pronounced regression in three of his last four seasons.
Now, it’s hard to argue that all of that is due to him catching full time, but it’s hard to find another reason. So why not make the move now? After all, we do have precedent.
On Sal’s value behind the plate, Flanagan notes that “this will be especially true if the pitching staff, as expected, gets younger during the next two years.” While this is true, an argument could also be made that the Royals will be going into an inevitable rebuild over the next several seasons and that Kansas City may squeeze what Sal has left to offer out over the next few seasons when they aren’t even competing.
Now, let’s talk about that precedent.
Back in 2010, the Minnesota Twins won the AL Central with a 94-68. Their best player? Catcher Joe Mauer, just a year removed from an MVP season. The Twins, however, were swept in the ALDS by the New York Yankees.
The next year, everybody regressed or was injured and the Twins lost 99 games. In 2012, the Twins lost 96 games as Mauer played 147 games behind the plate. By 2013, the Twins would be in full rebuild mode and as Mauer struggled at the plate, he began to take reps at first base.
Fast forward to 2017, and you’ll see a 34-year old Joe Mauer that played in 138 games, none of which were behind the plate, and put up a .801 OPS for a team that was back in contention.
Now, obviously, Salvador Perez is not Joe Mauer. Perez has a better frame than Mauer behind the plate and Mauer’s value was never in his defense. However, the Twins were in a situation not all that different from the one the Royals are in now when they moved Mauer. They were headed into a rebuild.
The Royals are going into a rebuild. Hopefully, it’s shorter rather than longer, but it is going to be a rebuild, nonetheless. I would rather see the Royals at least test the waters a little bit going forward so that in a few years, when Sal is in his 30’s and the Royals are hopefully back in contention, the well isn’t completely dried up.
So while Flanny sees moving Sal to first base during a rebuild as a potential negative, I see it as a potential opportunity. I would rather be out in front of this change than being forced to tread water in, say, 2019 or 2020. And it doesn’t hurt that the Royals actually have some system depth at catcher.
Cam Gallagher got a cup of coffee this season and while he should not be mistaken for a future starter (or even a viable back up at this point), he can handle himself behind the plate and would make a nice placeholder.
In the long term, Meibrys Viloria, Chase Vallot and MJ Melendez provide the Royals with a good mix of upside. Viloria and Vallot are both marked for their offensive upside, with Viloria hitting a ridiculous .376/.436/.606 slash in route to Pioneer League MVP honors last season.
Vallot, on the other hand, has posted a 140 and 136 wRC+ marks in his last two seasons, with ISO’s north of .200 in each of his last three seasons.
These are, as noted, long term solutions. And these aren’t exactly blue chip prospects, so it shouldn’t be confused that I am calling for Sal to be moved out from behind the plate in 2018 or even 2019. But it would serve the Royals well to lighten his workload while in a rebuild in an effort to preserve him going forward.
Of all the Royals core, Sal was always the guy most likely to be in for the long haul. He is and will always be a key piece of the Royals puzzle as long as he is in Kansas City. When the next run comes, the Royals could certainly use his services.