With Kendall out, KC explores catching options

With Kendall out, KC explores catching options

With Kendall out, KC explores catching options
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The odd thing about the Royals' catching situation is that there's been more camp talk about Salvador Perez -- who almost certainly won't be on the team -- instead of the guys contending for the job.

The thing is, wise and wizened Jason Kendall -- with his 15 years of experience -- is expected to be out of commission when the first pitch is hurled across the plate on March 31. He's had surgery to piece back together his right shoulder and, for all his determined talk, Kendall is likely to miss Opening Day.

So, as the Royals began Cactus League play on Sunday against Texas, Brayan Pena was behind the plate -- and he's the leading candidate to sub for Kendall. But Lucas May and Manny Pina are in the hunt, too.

The Royals probably will carry two catchers, but how playing time will be divided remains to be seen.

"I'd rather have one guy do most of the catching, but we'll see how it plays out. We'll see if they complement one another, we'll see if one guy clearly beats the other guy out. We'll see what happens," manager Ned Yost said. "I just want to put the best team out there every day that's going to help us win."

Kendall will turn 37 in June, and the Royals are looking for a future catcher who'll fit with their incoming mass of hot young players -- especially the pitchers -- and Perez is the current front-runner, especially since Wil Myers was moved to the outfield.

Just 20, Perez is likely to start the season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas because he's never played above Class A. His hitting might need some work, but his catching skills are advanced for his age.

"I think he's real close to being ready to catch in the big leagues right now," Yost said early in camp, while he quickly added it wouldn't be right away.

Yost considers defense the top priority for a catcher, and Perez's attributes include his throwing ability. For Class A Wilmington last year, he gunned down 37 of 88 wannabe base pirates, a rousing 42-percent clip.

"As good a thrower as I've ever seen -- as I've ever seen -- behind the plate," Yost said emphatically. "I've always thought that a 1.8 [seconds] throw to second base was a myth, right? Because I've never seen one. This kid is constantly in the 1.8s."

That's the elapsed time between the time a pitch hits the catcher's glove to the time his throw hits the fielder's glove at second base.

"The Major League average is around 2.0," Yost said. "Anything in the mid 1.9s is really, really good."

There's a lot involved in catching, including the intricacies of calling a game, which Yost -- a former catcher -- considers 50 percent of the job. Perez is learning quickly, as that aspect of his game catches up with his other attributes.

"He blocks the ball very well, has great energy behind the plate, has a lot of leadership qualities," Yost said.

At 6-foot-3, Perez is tall for a catcher. But those long moving parts mesh well together, his movements are short and quick, and his feet dance.

Perez, from Valencia, Venezuela, became a catcher by accident. As a kid, he'd played third base and shortstop.

"When I was 13 years old in Venezuela, the catcher didn't show up for the game, and the manager said, 'Can you catch?' I said, 'OK. I've never caught but I'll do it,'" Perez said. "He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'Yeah, I'll catch today.' And I liked it, and that's how I started to catch."

Actually, Perez got an earlier start on catching than the other three.

Pena, who grew up in Cuba and played outfield, first turned to catching when he was 15. He really got into it after he defected and was training in Costa Rica.

"I wasn't awful, but I had a lot of room to improve," Pena said. "Now, I still have a lot of room to improve, but not like it was back then."

Pina, who was a shortstop in Venezuela, was 17 when he went to a tryout camp, and got some advice before the Rangers would offer a contract.

"They had me throw a couple balls to second base, and they told me, 'If you want to sign, you've got to sign as a catcher," he said. "I said, 'OK,' but I never played catcher before I signed."

May was a shortstop when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being drafted in 2003. He was switched to the outfield in 2005, and didn't become a full-time catcher until 2007, when he was 22.

"The first year or two was really just about catching mechanics and getting that stuff down," May said. "At this point, it's just more about strategy of the game and doing your homework about hitters, and getting together with your pitching staff and making a plan."

Mostly, behind the plate, it's about defense.

Pena, who dropped 20 pounds or more in the offseason, is more agile this year, and is able to give his pitchers a target in the vital lower strike zone.

"The thing that he did best for me defensively last year was throw -- he did a really nice job of throwing runners out," Yost said. "But there were a lot of areas we needed to clean up and tighten up."

Mission accomplished: Pena was named the best defensive catcher in the Dominican Winter League.

"I like the way Ned is pushing me," Pena said. "He likes me to continue working on improving my defense. ... I want to do what Ned wants me to do because it's all about defense."

Pena threw out 10 of 39 runners, or 25 percent, for the Royals. Pina, who has never caught in the Majors, had an excellent 42-percent success rate in the Minors (35 of 83).

It's Pina who ranks right with Perez in terms of getting off quick throws, also clocking the rare 1.8 seconds in practice.

"They're both the best two throwers that we have in our organization," Yost said.

Pina also ranks very high overall for his defense.

May, entering his fifth year of catching, spent considerable time this winter with ex-Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane to work on his defensive techniques.

"I think what we hammered out was calming me down back there -- in terms of throwing, getting a quicker release, just getting the ball in the air," May said. "We just corrected my posture, and didn't worry about anything -- except the transfer and the release, and I think that made me quicker."

Yes, the catchers are expected to contribute at bat, too, and Pena, a switch-hitter, got hot late last season after Kendall's injury, and hit .320 with 15 RBIs in his last 28 games.

Pina, a right-handed batter, hit .259 with seven homers and 44 RBIs in 79 games last year for Northwest Arkansas -- but just .218 when promoted to Triple-A Omaha.

May, also right-handed, showed some power in the Minors last year, with 16 homers and 59 RBIs in 104 games. In the last month with the Royals, he hit .189 with one double in 12 games.

Perez, a righty, struggled so much at Class A in 2009 that he was sent back to Rookie ball at Idaho Falls. But he prospered last year at Class-A Wilmington with hitting coach Justin Gemoll, and batted .290 in 99 games.

"And [Royals hitting coach Kevin] Seitzer seems to think he has a chance to be a Sandy Alomar-type offensive player," Yost said. "He's very young, he's really starting to develop with the bat. So we'll see how that plays out."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.