New Rays catcher Michael Perez worth wait

Rays catcher Michael Perez, left, tags  Randal Grichuk of the Blue Jays for the strikeout on Aug. 12, 2018. (The Canadian Press via Associated Press)
Rays catcher Michael Perez, left, tags Randal Grichuk of the Blue Jays for the strikeout on Aug. 12, 2018. (The Canadian Press via Associated Press)
Published August 18

BOSTON — If rookie catcher Michael Perez turns out to be as good as Rays officials think based on their initial reviews, they may thank Steven Souza Jr.

Well, not Souza directly.

But it was in the process of extensively and intensively scouting Arizona's minor-league players to complete the February trade of their team MVP outfielder that the Rays became reengaged and enamored with Perez, who was in his eighth year in the D-backs' system with little hype and no path from Triple A to the majors.

So when Arizona officials came calling again in July in pursuit of reliever Matt Andriese, the Rays had a pretty good idea whom they wanted — and thus far are pretty pleased with the guy they got.

"Certainly by industry standards he was never one of the famous guys you tend to read about in the publications, but certainly a guy that we have a lot of history with, with a lot of reports in the system from A ball all the way up,'' Rays pro scouting director Kevin Ibach said.

"Leading up to the deadline he was a guy certainly we had talked about internally for a little bit and we were fortunate he was in a position where he was blocked by three catchers there in the big leagues. … In a lot of organizations he may have had more of an opportunity than he had at the time in Arizona.

"We try to do that as a staff a lot, try to identify players that may be blocked in other team's systems that could flourish in ours if given that opportunity. And I think Perez would definitely fall into that bucket.''

With Wilson Ramos on the DL at the time and headed for a trade, the Rays didn't waste any time, bringing Perez straight to the majors for the double challenge of learning a new staff of pitchers and moving up to the highest level.

And they couldn't be more pleased with how the 26-year-old has done behind and at the plate.

"It's been a nice balance,'' said manager Kevin Cash, a former catcher. "He's been fun to watch. He's come over here, I can't say quietly, but he's done a really nice job of transitioning himself early in his big-league career.''

Offensive contributions by catchers are typically considered a bonus by the Rays, but having a lefty swinger who has shown patience and a bit of power at the plate is a valuable addition. Though cooling a bit from a hot start, he is hitting a solid .292 with a .744 OPS and one homer.

But the work Perez has done handling the pitchers, most of whom he'd never even seen throw live much less caught, has been extremely impressive.

"He's got good hands,'' third-base/catching coach Matt Quatraro said. "He's only had to make a couple throws but they were great throws, right on the base, with a plus arm. And, to use the technical term, he's blocked the crap out of the ball.

"But what's really impressed me, to be honest, is when he first got called up he was so calm. There was no panic. You would expect, first time in the big leagues, some kind of anxiousness, but there was none. From a catcher's standpoint that's really impressive, especially with a staff like ours that's power arms and somewhat erratic. But he hasn't flinched.''

The pitchers have quickly come to appreciate the effort from Perez, who at 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds is smaller and more athletic than most of the Rays' previous backstops.

Though not ready to trust Perez with game-calling yet, All-Star Blake Snell raved about how he sets up and receives the pitches, saying "there's a lot to like.''

Fellow newcomer Tyler Glasnow is all in. "He's amazing,'' Glasnow said. "I've thrown him 51-foot curveballs that he blocks every time. I love his pitch calling. I like the way he sets up. And he's a really fierce competitor. You throw to certain guys, you can tell they want it just as bad as you do.''

Perez had the same sense of calm talking about his play as he shows on the field.

In short, that there was definitely a lot of learning initially but he feels comfortable now, that it was a big help that Cash and the coaches told him to just be himself and keep doing what he was doing, he was confident enough in his abilities that he could handle the long-awaited jump to the majors.

"I'm very proud of myself for getting here at this point and thankful to the Tampa Bay organization for giving me this chance,'' he said, with help from team interpreter Manny Navarro. "I'm just going to continue to work hard and be here and enjoy it.

"I feel like I would have had the same amount of success (in Arizona) if they'd have given me a chance. Things happen for a reason. And sometimes trades do make a difference in a guy's career.''

Or in this case, two trades.

Though Souza was dealt in late February, with pitcher Anthony Banda and infielder Nick Solak (via the Yankees) coming right over, Rays scouts spent March and April closely tracking a "pretty expansive list" of candidates to be the two minor-leaguers to be named before settling on pitchers Colin Poche and Sam McWilliams.

Along the way, they liked more and more of what they saw of Perez, with scout Dave Myers getting a good look at him with Triple-A Reno, and the office staff collaboratively following up with video and statistical updates. So when the opportunity arose last month, the Rays were ready.

"It's a really good story,'' Ibach said, "from start to finish.''

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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