I have heard/read at least three different commentators say that trading Salvador Perez would be difficult because of his contract. To be clear before I move on, I think there is almost no scenario where the Royals trade Perez immediately after making him team captain, but I also think his contract is much more movable than many others are assuming. The changes in the economics of the game and Salvy’s bat since that contract was signed really make it look very different than it did back before the 2021 season began.
Let’s review the contract extension and the reactions to it at the time to begin. In March of 2021 Perez signed an extension that began last year. He was to be paid $18 million in 2022, $20 million in ‘23 and ‘24, and $22 million in ‘25. It also has a team option for 2026 at $13.5 million with a $2 million buyout. At the time, I was not sure paying that much money to a catcher for his age 32 to 35 seasons was a very good idea, especially if he did not stay at catcher. I was not the only one to say it might not make financial sense. Now we are a quarter of the way through the second year of the deal and I think Perez is showing that he very well could live up to the contract.
When we talk about player value, Salvador Perez is more complicated than most. If you want to measure overall production, I think most analysts go to WAR, but fWAR and bWAR disagree about how good Salvy is by a large margin because pitch framing is an important part of catcher WAR on Fangraphs, but does not factor into the Baseball Reference version. For instance, last year Fangraphs had Salvador as a 0.5 win player and BR had him a 2.7 WAR. When we convert those to dollars, Fangraphs has it at $8 million per win, so that would be $4 million vs $21.6 million in value. So, he either was worth $14 million less than the first year of the contract or he was more than worth it.
Pitch framing has been less of a problem for Salvador so far in 2023. Last year he was pegged at -11.6 runs above average defensively by Fangraphs, and so far this year is only at -0.4, which is a pace that would put him around -1 or so. That’s ten times better!! He is also at 1 fWAR already, and by the rest-of-season projections is looking to end up in the two and a half to three win range, which is right at $20 million in value for the year and matching the contract. BR actually has him slightly behind that at 0.9 bWAR, so the two WAR versions are mostly in agreement for once, and they both say he is on pace to at least match the contract this season.
As for the next two years, three year ZiPS projections have Perez at 2.0 and 1.5 fWAR in 2024 and 2025 respectively. Those would put his value below the $42 million owed, but not by a crazy amount. That would be $28 million at 2022 rates, but inflation on players looked high last off-season. If that continues, would $9 million per win make more sense? That would make those projections worth $31.5 million. Now we are only about 1 win away from hitting the entire contract value. Is it crazy to think Perez may outperform that 3.5 WAR projection?
Salvador Perez was not a very good hitter as a young player. He was a below average MLB hitter through his age 28 season in 2018. Then he did not play in 2019. When he came back, Salvy was still a free swinging, high contact hitter, but now one with WAY more power. The highest SLUG he had posted before 2020 was .495 in 2017, but in 2020 he slugged .633, albeit in a shortened season. In 2021 he hit the most homers of any player primarily playing catcher in the history of the MLB and his .544 slug really backed up the 2020 performance. Last year he started slow, but then from June on his slug was again above the .500 threshold.
This year is more of the same so far. He already has 11 home runs, and is on pace for a career high in doubles. If he can continue to be an okay catcher and slug like this, I don’t really see why he can’t average the 2.5 WAR or so per season to continue living up to this contract. He is 33 though, and we know how quickly things can fall apart, don’t we Alex Gordon. It’s not even crazy to think that the 2026 team option at just $13.5 million will be something tempting to pick up. Even if he had to move to DH, the way he is hitting could net him close to 2 WAR, which would be well worth that price tag, though only for a team that can have a dedicated DH spot, which may be the main problem for the Royals here.
All this is really to say that I don’t think Salvador Perez will get traded, but if the Royals wanted to push for the future a bit harder after this disappointing beginning to the season, moving Perez is likely possible without having to eat a huge portion of his contract. They could still move him and chose to eat some to get better prospects, but if a team is not interested in doing it that way they may still want a bat like Salvy’s in their 5 or 6 hole going down the stretch and into the playoffs enough to take the contract on.
I am reticent to say that the Royals should make such a move, though it is the correct long-term decision in a lot of ways. They have catchers in the majors and minors who can cover that position over the next couple years as they try to get a more solid team put together. Having the DH spot open for Pasquantino a lot has value in keeping Pratto at first defensively more often, so having an aging catcher that might need to be at DH 50 times a year is not ideal. Still, he is Salvy, and seeing him in another uniform would be a little sad, at least for me it would.