“Cactus Royals” Preview: Catchers

So Spring Training has begun, and even though it is just pitchers and catchers having begun workouts thus far (all players are to report to Surprise on the 22nd), there is anticipation in the air for the upcoming Royals baseball season.

Maybe it is the promise of a full 162-game season after a 60-game COVID-shortened affair in 2020. Maybe it’s the promise of a much better Royals season after back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, and a fourth-place finish in 2020. Maybe it’s the promise of new players such as Mike Minor, Michael A. Taylor, Carlos Santana, and Andrew Benintendi hopefully reinvigorating this Royals team and fanbase in 2021.

Whatever the reason, this Spring Training is hitting Royals fans differently, and an official Cactus League game hasn’t even taken place just yet.

To demonstrate my excitement for this upcoming Spring Training, I decided to do a Spring Training preview (which I dub “Cactus Royals”…yes a dumb nod to the Cactus League) series of sorts, where I would essentially break down the entire Royals Spring Training Roster into various tiers of expectation for Spring Training. I already kind of did this with the non-roster invites as a whole, but I think doing this for various positions would also provide some cool analysis, as well as give Royals fans an idea of what to look for and expect from each Royals invite, whether they are on or off the Royals 40-man roster.

Here is how the series of “Cactus Royals Preview” posts will be broken down:

  • Part 1: Catchers
  • Part 2: Infielders
  • Part 3: Outfielders
  • Part 4: Starting Pitchers
  • Part 5: Relief Pitchers

Much like my non-roster piece, I am going to break each position area into groups of four tiers. These tiers will be as follows:

  1. The Stars/Starters
  2. Bench Possibilities
  3. Bubble Guys
  4. Strictly Minor League Material

Obviously, guys in the upper tier will be players who will be depended on during the regular season, and their outlook in 2021 could have a strong impact on the Royals’ playoff chances in 2021. Tier 2 players will be either utility or backup players, but seem to be safe picks to be on the active roster in 2021. Tier 3 players are guys who could make the active roster out of Spring Training, but also may miss out if they don’t impress this Spring, which in turn could affect their tenures in Kansas City. And Tier 4 players will probably be in the Minors in 2021, either because they are still prospects a year or two away from contributing, or they are four-A or career Minor League players who have little chance of having an impact in Kansas City in the near or distant future.

So, with the tiers explained, let’s take a look at the first positional category: the catchers.

The Stars/Starters

Salvador Perez

There isn’t much debate in regard to who will be staring behind the dish on Opening Day in 2021, barring any kind of injury to Salvy in Cactus League play. After missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery recovery, Perez came out on fire in 2019, as he led the team in home runs with 11, and also posted an insane .333/.353/.633 slash in 37 games and 156 plate appearances. The excellent bounce back at the plate earned Salvy a Silver Slugger award last year, which is the third time he’s received the honor in his career (he also got the award in 2018 and 2016).

As expected, both Baseball Prospectus and ZiPS are projecting some regression from the face of the Royals franchise in 2021. Even though Salvy hit over .300 last year, it was the first time he had been over the .300 batting average mark since 2012, his second season with the Royals. Despite his batting average issues, Salvy has always demonstrated power potential over the course of his career. He hit 20 or more home runs from 2015-2108 and also sports a career ISO (isolated slugging) of .180, which includes 200-plus ISOs each season over the past three years (2017, 2018, 2020). Hence, the power he displayed last year wasn’t totally far off from what Royals fans have seen from him, and it is likely to transition into the future as well.

However, his plate discipline has been worrisome, as he sports a career walk rate of 3.4 percent and BB/K ratio of 0.21, both sub-par marks in their respective categories. Even last year during his rebound campaign, he only posted a walk rate of 1.9 percent and a BB/K ratio of 0.08, which was a career low (the latter was compounded by a K rate of 23.1 percent, a career high). Sure, Salvy produced during a shortened season, but one has to wonder what the numbers would have looked like had 2020 been a full campaign. Chances are, there would have been some serious regression in some categories, especially batting average.

Salvy’s defense will be worth paying attention to this Spring, as Salvy did see a bounce back in Def (defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs) as it was 1.2 in 2020 after three straight seasons of negative Def marks. However, the 30-year-old catcher is a polarizing defensive figure, as he either looks really good or really bad, depending on what metric one weighs more heavily in regard to catcher defense evaluation.

When it comes to factors like arm strength and fielding percentage, Salvy has always rated as one of the best in the league, and he has five Gold Gloves to back that up. However, when it comes to framing, he has typically rated as quite below average, though he did see some gains in his framing ability in 2020, as evidenced in the chart below:

After being 11 runs below average in regard to extra strikes, and posting a strike rate of 43.7 percent in 2018, Salvy improved by 11 runs and 5.3 percent in strike rate in 2020. That’s a huge development, and one has to wonder if during the lost year, Salvy worked to improve in this defensive area of his game, which has widely been dogged throughout sabermetric circles. That being said, it will be interesting to see if Salvy’s improved framing was just the benefit of a short sample (much like his offense last year), or if this could be a long-term trend for Salvy. If it is the latter, he should be more valuable when he becomes eligible for free agency after next season.

Bench Possibilities

Cam Gallagher

After competing with Martin Maldonado and Meibrys Viloria in a rotating starting catcher role in 2019, Gallagher became the primary backup to Salvy in 2020 and thrived in the role. Gallagher has always been known for being stronger at framing than Salvy, as he has posted strike rates of 51.4 percent, 48.8 percent, and 48.9 percent each season from 2018 to 2020, respectively. However, last season, Gallagher showed some production with the bat, as he posted a .283/.356/.434 slash in 25 games and 60 plate appearances. That kind of offensive ability made it easier for manager Mike Matheny to give Salvy days off or at first base, which was much needed last season considering that Salvy missed all of 2019.

Gallagher doesn’t offer much long-term upside, and while his metrics offensively were good, PECOTA and ZiPS project him to regress to the slightly below average offensive hitter that he was back in 2018 and 2019. On a positive end, he does sport the best plate discipline out of the catching options on the 40-man roster, as his 10.8 percent walk rate and 0.55 BB/K ratio were the highest marks for Royals catchers in 2020. That being said, while he displayed a good batting eye, he doesn’t offer much punch with the bat when he connects, as his 82.7 MPH exit velocity and 23.3 percent hard hit rate were both the lowest marks for Royals catchers last season as well.

Even though Gallagher won’t overtake the starting position from Salvy anytime soon (or ever), the Royals do not need Gallagher to be stupendous at the plate. As long as he continues his strong framing ability, and can at least be around average offensively (even slightly below is okay), the Royals organization will be satisfied with what the 28-year-old will bring to the table in 2021.

Bubble Guys

Meibrys Viloria

Viloria is one of the more interesting stories on this Royals roster this Spring, mostly because he most likely will be one of the first roster casualties due to him being out of Minor League options. Viloria was rushed in 2018 due to catching need at the MLB level, as the Royals called him up in 2018 even though he primarily played in High-A Wilmington that season. Viloria showed some promise in some categories, as he posted a 10.5 percent barrel rate and one of the more live throwing arms in the Royals system. However, his struggles to get any loft under the ball, combined with his own framing issues, have negated his ability to make any serious headway as a backup in Kansas City the past two seasons.

No player on the Royals 40-man suffered more than Viloria due to the lost Minor League season. He probably would have benefited from a full Triple-A campaign in 2020 where he could have spent more time on improving his launch angle, calling games, and working on his framing in a lower-risk environment. However, the lost Minor League season of 2020 not only cost him valuable in-game experience, but also a Minor League option, and if Viloria does not make the active roster this Spring, he will be designated for assignment and put on waivers. Considering he is only 24-years-old, and has demonstrated some promising, but raw, ability at the MLB level, it is highly unlikely that the Royals would see him go unclaimed.

There may be a chance that Viloria could swoop the backup role from Gallagher this Spring (especially if Gallagher gets injured in Spring Training). That being said, it is more likely that Viloria will be in another organization by Opening Day.

Strictly Minor League material

Sebastian Rivero, Nick Dini, MJ Melendez, and Freddy Fermin

Though Dini and Fermin are already in Spring camp, it seems like both players are there for catching depth more than anything. Dini got a limited cup of coffee in 2019, but after testing positive for COVID prior to the start of the regular season in 2020, he hasn’t sniffed the Major League level since. He most likely will be the regular catcher at Triple-A Omaha, and could be an emergency backup should Gallagher or Salvy go down for an extended period of time. As for Fermin, he’s 26 years old, but the highest level he has played at so far has been Double-A. Considering he was an international signing out of Venezuela in 2015, the fact that he only has 32 games under his belt at Double-A at his age is not really a promising sign for his outlook.

Rivero and Melendez on the other hand are two of the more interesting catching prospects in the Royals system, though both seem to be trending in different directions. Rivero was a surprise addition to the Royals 40-man roster this off-season, as his defensive tools have been highly lauded by the Royals front office. Rivero shouldn’t be a serious threat for any playing time at the MLB level this Spring, as he mostly played in high-A Wilmington in 2019 and ZiPS projects a -1.7 WAR for him in 2021. While he may not be as much of a threat with the bat (60 wRC+ with the Blue Rocks in 326 plate appearances), his defense is not too far away from being Major League ready, and it seems that the Royals believe he could at the very least be at backup at the MLB level, much like Gallagher. Even though Rivero primarily played in High-A, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him begin and play most of the year in Triple-A Omaha, especially since he is on the 40-man roster and the Royals wouldn’t have to burn a roster spot to call him up (unlike Dini).

Melendez on the other hand was once seen as the catcher of the future for the Royals, but now seems to be on a shakier track. Melendez did participate at the Alternate Site last Summer, but his stock didn’t rise as much as Rivero’s. Melendez offers similar defensive ability, but he has more worrisome contact and strikeout issues at the plate in comparison to Rivero. He hasn’t posted a strikeout rate under 30 percent at any level in the Minors since debuting in 2017, and in 2019 in Wilmington, he posted a 39.3 percent K rate, which was a career high. Furthermore, Melendez’s power upside seemed to sap from 2018 to 2019, as his home run total fell from 19 to 9 and ISO regressed from .241 to .149 in roughly the same amount of games (111 in Lexington to 110 in Wilmington). Though Wilmington is a pitcher’s paradise, the power regression, combined with the persistent contact issues, didn’t necessarily bode well for Melendez and his outlook as Salvy’s possible heir behind the plate in Kansas City.

Next off-season, the Royals will have to make a decision on what to do with Melendez, as he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and the Royals will need to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him. It seems likely that the Royals will try to extend Salvy after next year, which begs Royals fans to ask the question: is Melendez worth keeping around when he may only be a backup at best in the next 2-4 years? Furthermore, is his defense better than Rivero’s, who seems more Major League ready in that category than the former second-round pick?

Melendez will most likely play in the hitter friendly environment of the Texas League with Double-A Northwest Arkansas to begin the year, but it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see him start in High-A Quad Cities if he doesn’t have a strong Spring. Much like other formerly heralded prospects who struggled in High-A in 2019 like Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto, Melendez will need to produce in 2021 in the Minors to prove that he is worth keeping in the Royals organization beyond 2021.

(Photo Credit: Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

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