Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 2/28/12

Salvador Perez just joined a very exclusive club. By signing a five year, $7 million guaranteed contract — which includes three additional option years — with the Kansas City Royals, the 21-year-old catcher joins Evan Longoria and Matt Moore as players who have signed significant extensions before accumulating a year of major-league service time. While Longoria’s and Moore’s contracts are considered major steals for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Perez deal is a bit more uncertain. With the Royals starting their build a competitive team, they need to be sure they’re extending the right players.

Comparing Perez’s extension to Longoria’s and Moore’s pretty much ends at service time. Since Perez’s future in the majors isn’t as strong as Longoria’s or Moore’s, we can’t just come out and say the deal is a steal for Kansas City. The Royals rightly realized this, of course, and even if Perez meets all of his incentives and gets all of his options picked up, he’ll only make $26.75 million. That’s much less than either Longoria or Moore.

The contract’s timing is a bit puzzling, though. Perez still had three years to go before he hit arbitration, and he likely would have been paid close to the league minimum during that period. When we look at catchers who went year-to-year — or had their arbitration years bought out — Perez’s contract still looks somewhat favorable.

Catchers Age Year 1 salary Year 2 salary Year 3 salary Year 4 salary Year 5 salary Total Geovany Soto 24 $401K $575K $575K $3M $4.3M $8.85M Kurt Suzuki 23 $395K $410K $600K $3.4M $5M $9.81M Carlos Ruiz 28 $425K $475K $1.9M $2.75M $3.7M $9.25M Kelly Shoppach 27 $404K $1.95M $2.25M $3M $1.35M $8.95M Chris Iannetta 24 $396K $415K $1.75M $2.55M $3.55M $8.66M Jeff Mathis 24 $415K $450K $1.3M $1.7M $1.5M $5.37M Jarrod Saltalamacchia 22 $397K $411K $419K $750K $2.5M $4.48M Salvador Perez 21 $750K $1M 1.5M $1.75M $2M $7M

This table is far from perfect, but it gives us some insight into what catchers make once they reach the majors. The chart features catchers who either made their major league debut five seasons ago, or began receiving significant playing time in 2007. There are some imperfections here, of course. Only Soto, Mathis and Saltalamacchia truly went year-to-year during this five-year span. Every other player on the list eventually signed extensions — or contracts over one season — mainly to buy out arbitration years. If the Royals had waiting for Perez to go through his first couple of seasons year-to-year — and extended him once he hit his arbitration years — they likely would end up paying slightly more than $7 million based on the extensions handed out to Suzuki, Ruiz, and Iannetta at that point in their careers.

While Saltalamacchia and Mathis made less than what Perez is schedule to make during his first five seasons, both of those players were downright awful during that period. Saltalamacchia struggled to find playing time, and Mathis is still considered one of the worst hitters in baseball. It seems somewhat unlikely that Perez will be as bad as either player during his first five seasons. The Royals are committed to him as their catcher of the future, so he’ll receive plenty of playing time. And though his bat is due for some regression, it’d be hard to be as bad of a hitter as Mathis. Even if Perez completely collapses, the Royals will really only lose a couple million dollars.

If you look back up at the chart, you’ll notice that there’s one area where Perez appears to be an outlier. He’s easily the youngest player on the list. As Rob Neyer reminded us last night, that puts Perez in pretty good company. That’s not to say Perez is guaranteed to be the next Joe Mauer or Ivan Rodriguez — because that would be insane — but it’s interesting to see the success rate of these young catchers.

It’d be foolish to expect Perez to carry his .331/.361/.473 slash line to the upcoming season. His line was aided by a .362 BABIP, and he only played in 39 games. Even with some major regression, Perez still looks like he could be a useful player this season. In 580 plate appearances for 2012, ZIPS projects Perez’s slash line to be .274/.303/.394. That’s not bad, considering the average catcher hit just .245/.314/.390 last year. And once you consider Perez’s age, that projection looks even better.

If Perez can adapt to major league pitching, this deal could be a pretty significant steal for Kansas City. His bat might not play immediately, but offensive production at his position is so low that sluggish hitting still might not destroy his value. Even if Perez can’t adjust, there’s a decent chance he still lives up to the $7 million he’s guaranteed. And if Perez becomes one of the worst players in baseball, the Royals will have only overspent by $1 million or $2 million. It’s risky to extend such a young player with so little experience — but in this case — the Royals made the right move.

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