Michael Perez proving to be a big catch for Rays

Perez has just 24 major league games of experience, but will likely earn an Opening Day roster spot.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Michael Perez (7) catches a pitch during the fifth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles on March 6, 2019 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Michael Perez (7) catches a pitch during the fifth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays spring training game against the Baltimore Orioles on March 6, 2019 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published March 12, 2019|Updated March 12, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — Michael Perez isn’t the biggest target behind the plate. In fact, at first glance, it would be easy to mistake him for a middle infielder. But the Rays catcher -- liberally listed at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds -- makes up in intangibles what he might lack in size.

Perez, acquired last July in a trade with the Diamondbacks that sent Matt Andriese to Arizona, will likely open the season as the team’s backup catcher behind starter Mike Zunino, his path to his first Opening Day roster cleared when the Rays optioned reserve catcher Nick Ciuffo to Triple-A on Sunday.

The 26-year-old Perez enters this season with just 24 big league games under his belt. The Rays immediately promoted him to the majors after the trade , though his first taste of the big leagues cut short by a hamstring injuries. But even in that brief time, Perez earned the trust of his Rays organization quickly with his skills behind the plate.

"It's very tough to do," Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Perez's successful adjustment. "It;s tough to do it at the big league level, but it's even more tough to do it when you're coming from the Diamondbacks to the Rays. ... I thought his aptitude really stood out. it's not easy to go from Triple-A to the big leagues in the same organization and then he got traded, comes in straight from Triple-A never caught one of our pitchers and it was a pretty seamless transition."

Perez has been a catcher since he was nine. In fact, growing up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, he would shift between catcher and center fielder with Cubs shortstop Javier Baez on his neighborhood team before eventually settling behind the plate.

“I know I’m not a big guy, but I know I’m a good player,” Perez said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Even (Hall of Fame catcher) Pudge Rodriguez wasn’t the biggest guy out there, but he was able to have a pretty good career.”

Perez’s path to the majors -- which tool parts of eight minor league seasons to reach -- came together because of his defense. Before the trade, Perez threw out 37.8 percent of base stealers at the Triple-A level. He also graded out as one of the top all-around defensive catchers in Triple-A, according to an Baseball Prospectus statistic called adjusted fielding runs above average, which takes into account not only fielding, but also pitch framing, blocking balls and throwing out base runners. Perez’s adjusted FRAA last year at Triple-A was 5.1 runs above average.

“He’s not the biggest guy, but his athleticism really stands out,” Cash said. “You watch his actions behind the plate as a catcher -- blocking the ball and throwing -- he’s got quick feet, he’s got a cannon for an arm and how quickly he can react to balls in the dirt. He did a tremendous job for us last year. He gets there a different way, but just by talking to every pitcher he worked with after we acquired him, they love throwing to him.”

Rays left-hander Anthony Banda came up through the Diamondbacks system with Perez, and said he knew Perez has the tools to be a big league catcher

“I’d talk to managers and basically beg for him to catch me,” said Banda, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. "It’s not taking away from the others, it’s the comfort level of things with him. When I heard he got traded over here, I was like, “Perfect.' I always he was a great big-leaguer, I always knew he’d be a big piece to something. It was just him getting his chance. He was just stuck in Triple-A. He was blocked.”

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Perez went from playing in a Triple-A game in New Orleans to making his major league debut in Baltimore two days later, and remembers how Cash set the tone with him from their first conversation.

“I went into Cash’s office," Perez said. "And he said, ‘Hey, I know you’re new to the team but I want you to do exactly what you’ve been doing. Don’t change a thing. Just play the game.’ So it was very exciting to hear that and that they had a lot of trust in me.”

Over that next month, Cash said Perez quickly earned the trust of the Rays staff.

“He retained a lot of information to make those guys feel comfortable,” Cash said. “You know if you put down the wrong finger for one guy and that can trickle down throughout the entire staff, (that they think) he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But we never got that sense whatsoever. He was really in tune with what the guys’ strengths were and trying to get that out of them.”

Perez also held his own at the plate, posting an. 844 OPS over his first 13 games. He finished with a .284/.304/.392 hitting line before the hamstring injury ended his season. And he showed the ability to be a strong defender in that short sample size -- projecting for 20 total zone runs above average in a season.

“He has all the makeup,” Banda said. "He’s the full package - he’s good, he’s a good teammate, he’s good behind the plate, he’s good at the plate. What more do you want really? Everybody wants that perfect player. At least in my eyes, I think he’s the perfect fit for this team.''

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Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.